I would sign John Wayne right now, if I could, just to stare at the opponent’s bench.
Media commentators and analysts always talk about the “glue guy.” The guy that doesn’t do anything exceptionally well, and isn’t always the best guy on the floor, but holds the team together in such a way that lets everyone else do their best. Looking at recent former Wildcats like Patrick Patterson and Darius Miller, we see how valuable that can be. But on Cal’s teams, there’s one type of player that’s even more important than the glue guy: the grit guy. They don’t hold things together for the team, and won’t always score the most points, but they have a “mean” game that speaks for itself and has become something of a trademark of Cal’s otherwise silky-smooth teams.
Because this isn’t about motor, or leadership, or smoothness. Sometimes, it’s not about being smooth: it’s about being tough.
2010 – DeMarcus Cousins is the ultimate grit guy. Nobody was goofier, but nobody played meaner. From the infamous “elbow shiv” to the Mississippi State headgames, Boogie was never afraid to antagonize other players, or fanbases for that matter. And oh, man, did they hate him. His playstyle was rough, and it didn’t hurt that he was 6’11” and 847 pounds, either. But he almost took “grit guy” too far, and sometimes got a little out of control. We always loved him for it, but maybe we could have used a cooler head a couple of times. Regardless, anybody wanting to learn to intimidate on the court should hire DeMarcus; he’s like the Mr. Miyagi of mean-mugging.
2011 – I personally love Deandre Liggins, and not just because he hit one of the biggest shots of the year from that corner in the Elite 8, but because other players hated him. You could see it in his posture, his smile, and his floor slaps: he loved getting into opponents’ heads, and welcomed the hate more than any of the other Calipari Cats.
2012 – Michael Kidd-Gilchrist could tear you apart with a smile on his face. And did, more often than not. Some folks will tell you that there is no “off” position on the Nice Guy switch, but MKG is proof that there is. He was never as smooth as Anthony Davis, or as strong as Terrence Jones, but he was more tenacious than any other player we’ve seen in years. Sometimes you’d worry that he was a little out-of-control offensively, but then he’d grab his own rebound (two or four times), and simply out-work the other guys in the paint.
2013 – The closest thing we can get to a “grit guy” on this team was Nerlens Noel, even though he doesn’t really fit “grit” so much as “hustle.” Nerlens did a little bit of everything, especially defensively, but he was never mean, really. Even other teams were sad when he got hurt. And when he was out, that nasty presence on the team just no longer existed. Maybe that’s why the motor never really seemed to be there through this last year, leading to the disappointing result.
2014 – By all accounts, it looks like Julius Randle will be the Wildcats’ newest on-court assassin. The competitive nature and ability to physically dominate should pair nicely in making him one of the most loved players in Kentucky, and most hated outside it. While the wing players will be quick, and the post players will be strong, look for Julius to take up the “grit guy” mantle as the Wildcats’ newest, meanest All-American.