Why will this year’s team have a better chance to win #8 than Calipari’s previous 2 teams at UK? Besides the possibility of more overall talent on this year’s team, the answer is leadership. Leadership as defined by Webster: “The quality of character and personality giving a person the ability to gain the confidence of and lead others“. Can a freshman lead UK to a national title? We’re going to find out this year more so than the 2 previous years.
John Wall and KSR favorite Demarcus Cousins led Calipari’s first UK team to the Elite 8. The upperclassman on that team – Patrick Patterson – was all class, especially considering all the crap he had to deal with from Billy Clyde. Then he gets to his junior year and the #1 recruiting class joins him on a brand new team with a brand new attitude, bringing the swagger back to BBN. Patterson finished the season 2nd on the team in rebounds and 3rd in scoring but not the leader of the team. The team belonged to Wall and Cousins but they were two strong and different personalities, sometimes going in different directions and not really leading the team. They undoubtedly had a lot of success but there sometimes was a disconnect with the other members of the team. They liked the spotlight on them but as the spotlight got brighter there wasn’t a clear single leader on that team.
Calipari’s team last year, again, included the country’s top recruiting class, but with a different kind of attitude. Brandon Knight was a talented guard and Terrence Jones was a forward with size and tremendous skills. The upperclassmen included fan favorite senior Josh Harrellson who was 2nd on the team in rebounds but 6th in scoring, and juniors Darius Miller and DeAndre Liggins – neither of which had the stats or leadership qualities to draw teammates to them and lead them into battle. Again, this team had a lot of success and made it to the Final Four – but these freshmen were more low-key than Wall and Cousins and even though Jorts exploded on the scene, this team also had no clear leader.
Which brings us to this year’s team. The seniors on this team -Darius Miller and Eloy Vargas- don’t command a personality (at least outwardly) that gets teammates to follow them. This year’s version of the #1 recruiting class may be the most talented – which still needs to be seen over the course of the entire season – but with a different mix of personalities than the last two seasons. Anthony Davis is deservedly talked about as the #1 pick in next year’s NBA draft and he is critical to this team’s success, but he works within the framework of the team and doesn’t take charge of the team in so much as he blends with the others. Teague is still trying to find his way and Wiltjer will contribute more as he earns more minutes.
But Kidd-Gilchrist has emerged after just 16 games as the clear leader of this team. He’s 2nd in points and rebounds on the team, but his performance on New Year’s Eve elevated him from talented freshman and Player of the Year candidate to leader of this team. As choppy as the flow was during that game he willed the team to win – he was not going to let them lose. Whether it be his performance in games or at practice or organizing breakfast club workouts he definitely has the quality of character and personality giving him the ability to gain the confidence of and lead others. Just watch his interaction with his teammates and coaches. Calipari makes the team run for every missed free throw during a game, but he didn’t make the team run after the Louisville game for Kidd-Gilchrists’ missed free throws because of how hard he played. He puts the team on his back, and makes other players have better games and helps them to step up when the team needs them. This was the missing ingredient in previous years. MKG is the leader and his example, heart and passion will lead this team to #8.