When have we last been in this position? On a Sunday in early December optimism abounds for UK football, while doom and gloom has reigned down on a segment of Big Blue Nation on the basketball side. The day after a difficult loss to Baylor, Mark Stoops arrived for his first visit in Lexington ready to take over the UK football helm and bring excitement/life back into the program. It was an exciting day for all UK fans and capped off a weekend of many emotions for those that follow its two biggest programs. Lets look at the good and the bad:
MARK STOOPS ARRIVES:
There has been tremendous coverage of Mark Stoops’ press conference and the surrounding activities here on KSR all day. I encourage you to scroll down and read the many good posts on the subject as we have covered it thoroughly. But watching the day, three things stood out to me:
1. Mark Stoops wants to be here:
Watching the press conference, you got the sense that Stoops was as excited about this opportunity as the many fans in attendance. We first reported on Tuesday that Stoops had contacted Kentucky about the job opening and he confirmed that today. But when asked what made him initially express interest in the Wildcat job, he was clear, “because I believe in this place and this program.” He was direct in talking about his goal of making a SEC Championship game and one got the feeling that he wasn’t just saying it, he believed it as well. Mitch Barnhart said that he liked how much Mark Stoops really wanted this job and that enthusiasm carried over to today and confirmed that he legitimately believes he can win here.
2. Stoops is a very confident coach:
I re-watched the press conference this evening and focused less on the answers to the questions, but instead Stoops’ mannerisms and demeanor. And what I saw was a coach who has supreme confidence in his method and an attitude of quiet self-belief. He spoke not of what might happen, but what would happen and all of his answers were given confidently and directly. When questions were asked that he didnt like (such as Alan Cutler’s question about the losing mentality at Kentucky), he made it clear his disapproval. He noted that everywhere he has been, success has followed and he believes that will happen again here as well. It wasn’t quite the rambunctious “middle fingers held high” mentality I suggested was important, but it was a quieter. more subtle version of it. I believe Mark Stoops believes he is a great coach and can at Kentucky…and that is exactly what this school needs.
3. Facility Renovation is Coming
While most of the focus of the afternoon was on Stoops, the facility issue was brought up a number of times as well. President Capiluoto (who injected his usual brand of excitement/rambunctious personality into the proceedings) mentioned early on that a plan was being worked on to “invest in football” at the school. Mitch Barnhart repeated on a number of occasions that he would have more to say in the coming days about a major renovation of Commonwealth Stadium and that a plan would be in the works. Such a plan requires support from the Kentucky Legislature and it is by no means assured that it will get the total support it needs. But we saw for the first time, a unified public face between the Athletics Department and the University President on the topic. Mark Stoops said he thinks he can win with the facilities in their current state, but he also mentioned the promise of “commitments” to the facilities going forward. Step one of a major investment in Kentucky football has been made…the coach. Now the next two months will focus on step two, the infrastructure.
All in all, it was a great day for a UK football fan in the Commonwealth. As former players noted, it was as good a show as we have seen for the program in a long time. But a show is not enough. The substance has to match the style. However I get the sense that with Stoops, substance is exactly what he is most focused upon. He used the phrase “get to work” six times during the day, and one of his associates there told me that his biggest strength was “working hard.” The Mark Stoops era officially began today with one of the more flashy shows we have seen since I have been doing this…but whether the final results meet the current excitement will depend on what happens when that work ethic starts to show results.
BAYLOR LOSS BRINGS OUT THE PANIC BUTTON
I will get this out of the way at the outset. While I was disappointed with the loss to Baylor, I wasn’t tremendously discouraged by the result. Unlike with the game at Notre Dame, where I felt that Kentucky displayed almost no effort or intensity and was completely manhandled, I thought Kentucky played ok on Saturday. Their defensive effort was decent, they rebounded well and had a TON of open looks. They lost the game simply because they could not hit a shot within five feet. As Calipari noted afterwards, Kentucky had 21 offensive rebounds, presumably all of which put the Cats in a good position to score, and ended up with only 6 points off those rebounds. That is an astounding statistic. If Kentucky makes a few more two footers (I counted at least 14 shots missed inside five feet..the majority of which were good looks) and Wiltjer goes 3-9 instead of 1-9 from three point land, UK wins easily. But they didnt. So a loss occurred. But I don’t think such poor shooting will plague the team all year. With that said, there are concerns:
We still see Kentucky struggling to make good decisions and execute on the offensive end. I am shocked that the Cats have averaged 52.5 points in the last two games and amazed at how poorly they are running their offensive sets. The Cats are finding no fast break points and are completely unable to get to the basket for easy buckets. On Saturday, the Cats were able to get open looks, but their outside touch was off. In past years (and even earlier this season), that meant Kentucky would have to score on the attack. But this UK team still looks tentative and unwilling to go to the rim with the aggression that their talent would allow. Hopefully the return of Ryan Harrow will help that development, but as of now, it needs major work.
Kyle Wiltjer shooting
We expected going into the season that the one given would be Wiltjer’s ability to drain outside shots. He has been way off in the last few games, and more importantly, seems to have altered his shooting style as things have gone poorly. As Clark Kellogg noted on the broadcast, we are seeing Wiltjer “guide” shots, the type of things that always ends up hurting a shooter. Getting Wiltjer’s confidence back is EXTREMELY important, as he can only be a weapon for the Cats if those shots are falling.
I have been a huge fan of what we have seen from Old Man “Uncle” Julius Mays. He has played tremendously for the last two games and has made the best decisions of any player on the floor for UK. But besides him, the leadership level on the team is tremendously lacking. Kentucky players often look discombobulated on the court and no one has been able to get the group together and play the necessary leadership role. I am not a believer that this person has to be an older guy…contrary to popular opinion, the leader last year was not Miller, Lamb or Jones but Freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist…but I do want to see someone take the bull by the horn and make this “his” team. The most likely person would be Archie Goodwin. But he has a long way to go in that direction and the team is struggling as he makes the path.
Still, all hope is not lost. This team still has tremendous potential and can be very good in March. But along the way, they may hit a nadir that no other UK team has up to this point. My hope is that Kentucky fans remain patient and don’t “act a fool” (the fact that after the game, some UK fans went to Twitter and blasted the players, and then three of them soon thereafter deleted their Twitter accounts was very troubling to me). Kentucky is going to get better and it is worth remembering that we won a title last year and have a super team developing for next year. But until then, there could be moments of difficulty. The home streak is now over, but we have to hope that in the four weeks leading up to the game in the Yum Center, growth for this team will occur.
We will talk about both of these issues in detail on the radio tomorrow and get ready for another week. Until then, join me in welcoming Tyler Thompson as a full time KSR writer (her first day is Monday) and get ready for another week of action….