Since Kentucky lost to South Carolina on Tuesday night, there has been no shortage of commentary on what’s “wrong” with the Wildcats. However, no voice (outside of John Calipari’s) was louder these past few days than of than ESPN college basketball analyst Seth Greenberg’s.
By now, you’ve almost certainly heard what Greenberg said (as well as his response on Kentucky Sports Radio Thursday), but for the sake of this article, let’s reiterate what Greenberg said about these Wildcats. The video clip is below and here is the actual transcription:
“To me, we spend all our time talking about the freshmen: DeAndre Ayton, Marvin Bagley, the great Kentucky freshmen, instead of maybe talking about the best teams, because these guys are not the best teams. Why don’t we spend some time talking about the Villanovas, that are connected, the Purdues? What Virginia’s doing… I think we need to start talking about the teams that are really good.”
Then he moved onto Kentucky specifically:
“These guys are spoiled by the process by the time they turn 13 years old,” Greenberg said. “And they’re clueless in understanding how hard you have to play and what type of teammate you need to be. They’re not a good team because they are not connected, and you may say it is because they are freshmen, and that sounds great but they aren’t connected because they are all about themselves instead of the good of the group.”
Now for starters, let me make a few things clear: One, it’s important to note that Greenberg did in fact scale back his comments, during an appearance with Kentucky Sports Radio just a day or two ago. I also don’t believe that his words were intended to be malicious; I genuinely think that a TV producer asked him to talk about Kentucky, and he’s probably pretty tired of it, since right now there are other stories in college basketball worth discussing. I should also say that while I don’t “know” Seth Greenberg, I genuinely like his analysis on TV. He’s smart, prepared and thought-provoking. In other words, he knows his stuff.
Therefore the following article isn’t intended to be a shot at Greenberg, but instead, a conversation about his comments. He’s certainly not the only person who has called Kentucky some variation of “entitled” or “not hard working.” But his voice is certainly the loudest.
Of course while his voice is loud, I also don’t know that it is correct. As a matter of fact, in this case, I genuinely, 100 percent disagree with Greenberg. `
For one, criticizing the broader AAU culture is, in a general sense, a fair bone to pick… but I’m just not sure if it’s a fair bone to pick with this particular Kentucky team. That’s because while some players in this group were AAU darlings who have been coddled since their early teens, the simple truth is this team isn’t full of those kinds of guys. If anything, it’s the opposite. This team is full of grinders, who have slowly worked their way up the rankings throughout their high school careers.
Just as an example, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander – who just so happens to be the best player on this Wildcats’ team right now – was one of the lowest ranked recruits Calipari has EVER brought to Kentucky. He has thrived since getting to college in a way that no one expected. Wenyen Gabriel didn’t blow up as a national prospect until the summer before his senior year of high school. Kevin Knox was a dual football/basketball star, until he literally grew out of football and into a Top 10 prospect nationally in hoops. P.J. Washington may have been a McDonald’s All-American, but he is also a coach’s son who cut no corners in the process of getting there.
Beyond just the comment on AAU culture, I also have a problem with the broader concept that Kentucky doesn’t play hard, something I’ve heard quite a few people say (not just Greenberg). I honestly just don’t get it. This team has a lot of issues, including communication on defense, scoring droughts and giving up late leads. But despite all those warts, I’ve never gotten the sense that their problems stem from effort. If anything, they stem from a young team that thinks they’re giving it their all, but probably still have something in the tank. As John Calipari often discusses, that is a common problem for a team this young, regardless of whether they’re wearing a Kentucky uniform or someone else’s.
Therefore, if you asked me to diagnose this Kentucky team with one singular problem, it isn’t their AAU upbringing, or general disrespect for hard work, team play or their teammates. It’s simply age. They are the youngest team in college basketball, and they’re playing in a rapidly improved SEC. While I wouldn’t quite call that a “recipe for disaster” (since no team that is 14-4 can be considered a “disaster”) I would say that it definitely “ups the degree of difficulty.”
As a matter of fact, as Nick Coffey and I discussed on the latest edition of the Aaron Torres Sports Podcast (if you’re not listening, shame on you!) not only would I say this Kentucky team isn’t underachieving right now, I’d actually argue the opposite. I think you could make a legitimate case that they’re overachieving right now.
It sounds crazy, but let me explain. And to do so, let me use a tweet I sent out after the Vanderbilt game. The details changed a little with the loss to South Carolina, but I think the point is still applicable.
Kentucky is now 17 games into their season. They are 14-3 and had a chance to win every game they've played with five minutes to go. It hasn't always been pretty. But given UK's youth, fans should be happy with where this team is at
— Aaron Torres (@Aaron_Torres) January 13, 2018
Think about it in this sense: What if I told you there was a college basketball team that was 14-4. That sounds like they’re having a pretty good season, right? Now I told you that this 14-4 team has no bad losses, and in every single game, they had a chance to win with five minutes to go. You’d definitely think that’s a good team, especially when I told you that they have a bunch of really good (if not “great”) wins against projected NCAA Tourney teams (Louisville, Virginia Tech, Texas A&M) and that three of their four losses have come to teams that will probably make the NCAA Tournament (Kansas, UCLA and Tennessee). Two of those teams are currently ranked, and the team’s one “bad” loss came to a club that made the Final Four last year. Again, not bad.
And then, what if I told you… THEY’RE THE YOUNGEST TEAM IN COLLEGE BASKETBALL. You’d think their coach is a damn soothsayer, considering the circumstances.
But because it’s Kentucky, nobody sees it that way. They see a team that is underachieving; be it from the AAU culture, selfishness, lack of respect for their teammates or some other yet-to-be-determined diagnosis.
I think at this point you see that statement is totally bogus, and that – outside of maybe Jay Wright at Villanova – there are a lot of coaches who would be happy to trade their “problems” for John Calipari’s.
Now look, does Kentucky have a lot to work on. Absolutely. I listed a bunch of stuff above. But just about every team in college basketball has something to work on at this point in the season. Look at Duke, who decided to stop playing defense sometime in mid-October. Or Kansas, which could easily have 5-6 losses right now. Or Michigan State, which has dropped two of their last three games going into Friday night’s game against Indiana.
So yes, there are problems. But are Kentucky’s problems because of selfishness, AAU culture or a lack of empathy for their teammates?