Well, it’s that time of week again. Time to take an unbiased look at what’s happening with Coach Cal, World Wide Wes, and the overly-hyped freshmen who seem to comprise the UK roster each year. This season, the team hopes to make the NCAA Tournament, obtain a favorable draw, and a relatively simple path to the Final Four. They also hope against hope that unlike the previous Final Fours in which John Calipari has coached, this one will stick. For those who want to stay informed and educated, follow me on Twitter @NotJerryTipton Here’s the weekly notebook:
* We Gotta Get Out of This Place: A lot has been written and said about the freshmen who have played for John Calipari during his 2 seasons in Lexington. However, several of Kentucky’s recent losses have made it painfully obvious that the upperclassmen aren’t producing nearly as much as the newcomers. In the Ole Miss loss, for example, first-year players scored 59 of the 69 points Kentucky put on the board. This was not an isolated incident, either. Heading into the game at Florida, the rookies were outscoring the rest of the team, on average, 52 to 26. This same phenomenon occurred last year, when the first-year players scored 54 a game, compared to the 29 scored by the upperclassmen. Of course, this begs the question: What is happening to players at UK under John Calipari? Why are the freshmen’s numbers so much better than those of the veterans? Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb, DeAndre Liggins and Darius Miller were all highly-touted recruits coming out of high school. Yet the three freshmen are collectively averaging 17 a game, compared to the 9 per game that Liggins and Miller are scoring. Each of these 5 players was ranked in the top 100 as high school seniors, so ostensibly, they are all of equal talent. Are players regressing while being coached by Calipari? Is this the reason that so many players leave Calipari’s program after just one year? The huge disparity between the production of the freshmen compared to the paltry numbers put up by the guys who have played multiple years under Coach Cal (Jon Hood and Josh Harrellson, just to name a couple), tends to give credence to a theory that should send chills down the spines of Big Blue fans everywhere: The longer a player plays for Calipari at UK, the worse he gets.
* They Are Merely Freshmen: When Kentucky beat Tennessee on February 8, they did so on the strength of the play of veterans DeAndre Liggins and Josh Harrellson, who scored 19 and 16 points, respectively. It matched a career high for Liggins, and it was Harrellson’s largest output since he scored 23 in the win against Louisville on December 31. Both before and after the Tennessee game, Calipari stressed how important it was that the veterans — Liggins, Harrellson and Darius Miller — play well, and given how things played out against UT, the importance of the upperclassmen to the success of the UK team is evident. Likewise, it is obvious that despite all the hype surrounding the freshman class, the straws that stir the Big Blue drink are the veterans, all of whom were recruited and signed by ex-UK coach Billy Gillispie. When they play like they played against the Vols (Miller also chipped in 7 points and 6 rebounds), the Cats are a tough out. When they don’t, UK is very beatable, as was shown in the many, many losses Kentucky has suffered this season. Of course, this begs the question: What happens when all of Gillspie’s recruits are gone? What happens when the roster is comprised solely of players inked by Calipari? If Kentucky fans are dissatisfied with the performance of the current team (and based on the emails I’ve received, they are), then they figure to be even more disgruntled when Billy’s Boys are history.
* You’re No Good: Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun recently got the attention of Kentucky fans everywhere when he told ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla that Tennessee is the most talented team that the Huskies have faced this year. UConn, remember, also played — and easily defeated — Kentucky earlier this season in Maui. Upon closer inspection, that comment has to cause some consternation among Big Blue fans. How is it that Tennessee, which is a football school that’s never even been to the Final Four, has more talent than Kentucky, which is a program that fancies itself college basketball royalty? How is it that Kentucky, which boasts three consecutive top-ranked recruiting classes, isn’t as talented as a team that lost to also-rans such as Charlotte, Oakland and the College of Charleston? Some may suggest that Calhoun was just taking a thinly-veiled swipe at Calipari, given the icy history the two coaches share, or that he was just being complimentary to a Tennessee team he just beat, but the fact of the matter is that Calhoun is a professional, and was simply offering his unbiased opinion. It may be true that UK enjoys a higher ranking, a better RPI and a better record than the Vols (and yes, they handily beat UT this week), but one has to assume that at some point this season, the talent disparity which Calhoun cited will show itself, and — just like last year — Kentucky’s season will end before Tennessee’s does.
* Turtle Power: It’s been well-documented that Kentucky’s rotation this season is short. Very short. As in “6 guys” short. How did this happen? One theory is that Calipari wasn’t expecting to lose Daniel Orton (who declared for the 2010 NBA Draft), Eric Bledsoe (ditto), or Darnell Dodson (who was kicked off the team for undisclosed reasons). Likewise, it was said to have been a surprise when Enes Kanter was ruled permanently ineligibile by the NCAA for being a professional. However, even if Calipari and company failed to adequately prepare for these events, it’s hard not to think back to 2009, when Calipari seemingly ran off every member of the team upon his arrival, even though the 2008-09 Kentucky roster was absolutely loaded. As in, “19 players” loaded. In fact, 6 of those players were walk-ons, which means it didn’t cost the university a dime to have them on the team. The question that must be answered, naturally, is whether any of those additional players could have helped this Kentucky squad. At least one person thinks so. Birdie Witherspoon, grandmother of Mark Halsell (one of those 6 several walk-ons), said during a telephone interview that her grandson would definitely be an asset to the 2011 Wildcats. “Boy can play. I don’t know who they got down there now, but Turtle can flat play. Ain’t no question he’s a star, and he shoulda been one at Kentucky.” As turns out, Ms. Witherspoon theory appears to have some merit. After getting booted from the team by Calipari, Halsell went on to be a standout for NAIA powerhouse Park University, where he played in 13 games last year, averaging almost 5 points per game. You don’t have to be a mathmetician to figure out that those 5 points would have turned UK losses into wins against North Carolina, Alabama, Ole Miss and Florida. Furthermore, instead of being 17-6 (5-4 in the SEC), the Cats would be 21-2 (8-1), and in the running for a 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Oh, what might have been.
* Isn’t It Ironic? During the course of the Kentucky/Tennessee game at Rupp Arena on February 8, several Kentucky fans heckled UT coach Bruce Pearl, who was coaching in his first SEC game of the season after returning from an 8 game suspension. The punishment was levied by SEC commissioner Mike Slive, and it arose out of Pearl’s NCAA violations, and his subsequent untruths concerning same. Naturally, the taunts being offered by UK fans included “cheater,” “liar,” etc. Across the country, the reaction to these “Catcalls” was all too predictable: Where do Kentucky fans, given the program’s long and sordid history of NCAA violations, get off calling someone else a cheater? Isn’t that the pot calling the kettle crooked? National writers everywhere seemed to agree. John Adams of the Knoxville News-Sentinel (a Knoxville paper, to be sure, but the website for which Adams writes is nationwide) offered an opinion shared by just about anyone not dressed in blue: “By pointing out Pearl’s variance from the NCAA rulebook, Kentucky fans proved they have as much nerve as passion when it comes to basketball. Question: What’s the difference between an old NCAA investigator and a new one? Answer: The new one hasn’t investigated Kentucky basketball.” Aside from being hilarious, Adams is also correct. Another example was seen in an article written by ESPN’s Brian Bennett: “A small group of blue-clad fans directly behind the Tennessee bench shouted things like “cheater,” “liar” and other unprintable words at Pearl (which, given Kentucky’s own spotty NCAA history, seemed a little ironic).” UK fans are sure to point out the fact that Bennett is a Louisville native who grew up rooting for the Cards, but it is entirely possible to live in Louisville and share a relationship with the University of Lousville, and yet be completely and objectively neutral. Just ask Pat Forde.
* Happy Birthday: Finally, a big Happy Birthday to Ricky Richardson, the former Emery Freight employee who, in 1988, discovered an overnight letter which contained $1,000 and was intended for then-Kentucky recruit Chris Mills. The letter, of course, was sent by UK assistant coach Dwane Casey, and the incident resulted in massive penalties being levied by the NCAA on Kentucky. We are not sure of the exact date of Ricky’s birthday, how old he will be, or his whereabouts, but (assuming he’s still alive) Happy Birthday, Ricky.