See those three guys up there? How many of you can name all three? Well if you are a good UK fan, I am sure you can, but I bet there are many that if they saw a couple of the guys without their UK uniforms, they may have had to be helped out to come up with a name. They my friend, are the three newcomers to the 2005-2006 UK basketball team. Less than 18 months ago, those three young men posed together with broad “we are about to conquer the world smiles,” and the look of three guys ready to help win. Now two of them are gone and one is a Redshirt MIA due to injury. Those smiles have faded as I believe it is safe to say, any anticipation that greeted their arrival.
Much has been made about the last two seasons and what the cause for the various UK problems has been. To some the question begins and ends with a simple “Tubby”….an answer that is so easy to digest that it can cover all world harms from a 3 game losing streak to Vandy to global warming. For others, it is the heart of the players on the team…..many see this group as somehow not living up to the all-out warriors of yester year. For others, the problem lies in talent, as many argue UK simply doesnt have the players it once has and has fallen behind on the national level as to talent.
All of these arguments have various degrees of merit and are good discussion points for a debate on UK basketball. The first is so prevalent that it dominates virtually all UK discussion and is the reason for the existence of entire message board communities. The second is especially popular among those who see two Mcdonalds All Americans and little corresponding success. The last is a strong argument for those who wonder why NBA scouts arent drooling over first round talent that they can raid from our program. For me, I can see all of these points. But I truly believe the cause for the problems that have plagued UK comes down to truly one point…..recruiting evaluation.
As a starting point, I dont believe the argument that Tubby cannot recruit. Lets be clear, UK over the years has brought in a number of top ranked players…..Prince, Bogans, Camara, Allison, Stone, Parker, Carruth, Crawford, Morris, Rondo, etc were all highly coveted and Tubby went and got all of them. In addition, Tubby has gotten many lower tier guys who were undervalued like Fitch, Daniels, Hayes, Azubuike, Estill, Meeks, Jasper, etc. Thus the notion that Tubby “cant seal the deal” or “doesnt know how to relate to recruits” is wrong. The problem is not with the selling of UK…..it is with the implementation and evaluation.
Lets go back to Team Turmoil, circa 2002. The Cats have a devil of a year with a host of players that quite simply, Tubby doesnt like. He has guys like Carruth and Parker who stay in trouble, Adam Chiles who causes chemistry issues, Jules Camara making stupid mistakes, Corey Sears acting like a fool, and all of a sudden you have a team that is no fun to coach and a lot of trouble…..all the while not winning at a Kentucky rate. So what happens? Tubby gets rid of the dead wood…..and all of a sudden, BAM….the Cats run off the best regular season/SEC Tournament in the history of the school in 2003…..all the while with a group of kids (besides Bogans) who are undervalued, lower-ranked guys that Tubby likes. Tubby shows he can win with these kids and decides, “this is who I go after from now on.”
Then come the problems that UK is still paying for today. Tubby believes he can now win with anyone…..heck he showed it the year before. So he gets two classes of scholarship athletes that are (in totality) Brandon Stockton, Bernard Cote, Shagari Alleyne, Woo Obrzut, Bobby Perry and Sheray Thomas. It is safe to say that for those two years of classes, there were no shining stars and really only one player (Perry) that other reasonably top programs wanted….Tubby believes he can win with anyone….and tries.
From there, Tubby recognizes talent is needed and he gets this Junior class…..a class full of guys that at the end of the day are not classic Tubby players. Three of the four guys want to be in the NBA from the day they arrive on campus. Thus some get upset at a lack of playing time (Crawford), some are frustrated by ability to show their style (Rondo) and some are ready for the first paycheck (Morris). This causes Tubby’s most talented class to not fit in with his theory of team-first basketball….team growth is stunted, and thus when the group must become leaders, they either fail (in Rondo’s case) or struggle (the current group with Bradley).
So what does this all mean? Quite simply, Tubby had a four year run (the three we mentioned and the class pictured above), where the staff and Tubby simply did a horrendous job evaluating the players they were bringing to Kentucky. They either were not talented enough or they had the attitude of a player that isnt really a Tubby guy….at least at the beginning. In all actuality, I would say that of those FOUR YEARS of players, only Ramel Bradley and Bobby Perry (who would be great as a 6th or 7th man) are guys that I think were smart Tubby choices. The rest of the guys either dont have the talent or really dont have the attitude of a successful Tubby player. This has caused the mis-matched teams we have seen where people are either too selfish, too out of control, too untalented or too mis-managed to be a top team. These arent Tubby players and thus these have not been successful teams.
So the final question is, has this or will this change? Well I think Tubby got back on track with this freshmen class. Derrick Jasper, Jodie Meeks, Perry Stevenson and Michael Porter are all Tubby Smith type players. They are all talented, but not selfish. They are all smart players, but they arent world-beater athletes. They will all contribute for four years and be team-first guys during the whole experience. In my view, they are the Hawkins, Fitch, Daniels class all over again. If they get their “Bogans”, they can be as good as anyone. And Tubby is going after that guy this year. I like AJ Stewart as being an important part of a solid team, and while I am skeptical on Mike Williams, he has some Marquis Estill qualities that I can see. Everything we hear on 08 recruit Draymond Green says he is a team-first heady player who can put point on the board and is a winner…..exactly what successful Tubby players do. What is missing? Well Patrick Patterson and Jai Lucas of course. Those guys are PERFECT for Tubby Smith. Supremely talented, smart players who want to win…..that is why Tubby and the fans drool over them. They are perfect for UK.
Thus I think the change has been taking place. UK has, in the last two years, targeted the right kind of player….finally. But is it enough to make up for the past four years of mistakes? That is not easy to answer. The good thing that happens when you have a solid class every year is that if you miss out on a top target, you can make up for it….see when UK missed on David Lee but kept on trucking. But when you are following four years of recruiting evaluation mistakes, then the later decisions gain supreme importance. IF Patterson and Lucas go elsewhere, the mistakes of the four prior years may….even though they seem to have been corrected….put the program in a no-win situation.
I am not a doomsdayer. I think Tubby can right the ship….but if he doesnt, it wont be because he hasnt figured out his mistakes, he cant coach, he doesnt have talent, etc. It will be because he made four years worth of recruiting evaluation mistakes….and few, if any, coaches can survive that.