As I watched the final moments of the Vanderbilt game on Saturday, it became clear to me that it was time to expound on what we knew was inevitable for the entire season. It was no secret when the year began that this was a watershed year for Tubby Smith and the Kentucky basketball program. A disappointing season, coupled with some recruiting mishaps had made the tension a little hot around UK basketball land and I had the feeling at March Madness that this season (and the program) could truly go in any direction. Up to this point, the season has been relatively successful, with UK beating the teams it should, losing to the teams it should and staying relatively low on the national radar. But then came Vanderbilt…..a disappointing loss…..louder rumblings….and the arrival of what was always inevitable….the realization that the next Eleven games are crucial to the future of this program.
Let me be clear right up front that I am a huge Tubby Smith supporter. I think Tubby is a great basketball coach who, when it comes to coaching players on the court, is among the top 5 best in the nation. His time at Kentucky has been successful, by any reasonable standard, and his regular season success is virtually unparalleled. The 03 team was one of the 10-12 best in UK history and has the distinction of being the only team ever to go undefeated in the SEC Regular season and win the conference tournament. Folks can debate his postseason resume (which is not what this thread or the comments below are about), but I judge it by the Coach K criteria. Coach K told me in Indianapolis this past year that you judge a team by how many times it has gone into the NCAA Tournament with a reasonable chance of winning it…..defined as one of the 8-10 teams that could cut down the nets. Judged by that criteria, Kentucky has been a top level team 5 of Tubby’s 10 years (including this one), with 98, 99, 03, 04 and 05 years in which UK had a chance to cut down the nets. Four of those five teams reached the Elite Eight, but only one reached the Final 4. For some, that means failure….for others, it means randomness. Regardless of your perspective, the postseason has not been as successful as Kentucky fans would have wished…..at least when defined by Final Fours….and that is the sticking point on Tubby’s resume.
But regardless of what one thinks of the Tubby era or whether they support Coach Smith, all should agree that the next few weeks will define UK for the next 3-4 years. The Cats are about to hit an 11 game stretch where they truly have only one easy win (home to South Carolina). The other ten games are all loseable, while nine are winnable (tough to see a win at Florida). The team stands on the brink of challenging for one of the top two positions in the SEC and fighting for a Top Four seed in the NCAA….or could see the potential of struggling into the tournament again, along with national hand-wringing about the fall of the mighty Wildcats. Each outcome is possible and it isnt clear which is probable. That makes this time somewhat distressing.
What are the ramifications of the next few weeks? Well consider these scenarios. Lets say Kentucky goes 8-3 or better. The Cats then finish the SEC 12-4 or better (a record that no one predicted), finish the season with only seven regular season losses (thus ensuring no “Ten Loss Tubby” chants in the offseason), they go into the SEC Tournament with a bye, the NCAA Tournament with a high seed and have the potential for some March noise. The buzz around the program grows….the Vandy loss is likely forgotten…..chances increase of a Patrick PAtterson and Jai Lucas set of commitments to UK and the offseason is filled with optimism, rather than dread. Then if by some means Randolph Morris comes back to school….well UK could find itself a legitimate title contender next year…..an exciting proposition.
What if the Cats go 6-5 or 7-4? Well this muddies the waters….the Cats likely make the tournament, although maybe with no signature win that ensures a good seed. They are seeded somewhere from 6-9, draw a tough first round game which they might win or might lose. They face a great team in the second round and must pull off an upset to avoid a repeat of last year’s finish. Also the SEC Tournament likely sees no bye…..the recruiting is murky with UK having to sell that the team is not losing ground but can still lift off with the new commits and the 08 recruiting season (the group most affected by this year’s performance) is left with that same “where is UK headed” feeling that was so prevalent with the 07 group. In short, uncertainty remains.
But now what about the bad stuff…..5-6 or worse? With that record and no truly great out of conference wins (although Indiana looks better now), the Cats struggle to make the tournament….or worse, simply fall apart down the stretch. Negativity engulfs the program, with some fans calling for Tubby’s job and others simply too frustrated to do much of anything. Recruiting likely dies, with Patterson and Lucas wanting to avoid the possibility of a sinking ship and the 08 class becoming an extremely difficult sell….even to those kids who UK was strong with (Miller, Jurick, etc). Morris leaves for the pros with no hesitation and the offseason is looked to with dread, with the debate over coaching and the future of the program tearing up the fan base. In that environment, Tubby Smith (who would not be fired in my view this year, for any reason) possibly looks at everything and leaves…..exciting some, but making others nervous, as a potential rejection by first choice Billy Donovan could mean a successor with no proven track record……a possibility that brings more instability to the program.
What is interesting is that all of these possibilities look equally plausible to me. I think this team is better than most others believe, but I also know they are capable of losing a substantial number of games coming down the homestretch…..and if that happens, the horse is likely out of the barn and the negativity (whether correct or not) may become so all-encompassing that the program simply hits a wall. If things end that bad, Tubby Smith may choose to move on, and absent the hot shot in Gainesville, I think fans will be surprised how difficult it might be to find a consensus top flight coach to come and re-energize the base…..not impossible, but harder than many may think. But if they win and can keep positive momentum going, things could be bright. A commitment by Patterson and Lucas and a return by Morris makes UK a contender…..and both of those COULD happen…..even if they together are unlikely. Those commitments and early season potential can make some 08 commitments happen early, and then all of a sudden you are rolling again….with good young talent that is ready to make something special happen.
Thus the extremely positive and the negative are close. I firmly believe that either can happen. And for all intents and purposes, these eleven games will decide it. I hate when sportswriters or commentators are melodramatic, but this may be a time where it is appropriate. Beginning with Georgia Wednesday, the homestretch of games will have lasting significance no matter the outcome. Lets hope that outcome is positive.