One of the hardest things to do as a Kentucky fan is give up on your team. After yet another disappointing loss, many fans seem to have thrown in the towel in on this season, content to relive last year’s Championship and look forward to next year’s epic freshmen class. Can you blame them? It became very clear last night in the second half that many players on this squad have given up. After the game, Archie Goodwin said he wouldn’t blame fans for doing the same, and that if things hadn’t changed for the better yet this season, there’s no reason to think that would change in the next week. Simply put, Archie said “We’re not giving [fans] a reason to believe in us.”
This team has had issues all season, but as fans, we’ve had that blind faith that they would come together with time. In year four of the John Calipari Era, we’ve been conditioned to think that despite massive roster overhaul each season, these talented freshmen would magically fuse into a cohesive unit capable of making a deep tournament run. This year, we’ve discovered just how crucial some of the ingredients are to achieving that final product. Where did this year all go wrong? I’ve come up with five factors that led to this season’s demise, in no specific order:
1) Nerlens’ injury
Even with Nerlens, this team had problems, but he was able to mask most of them with sweltering defense and non-stop hustle. More importantly, Nerlens was the team’s anchor, both physically and mentally. When the going got rough, Nerlens got tough. More than any other player on the roster, he has an iron will to win (ala MKG), and while not the most vocal of leaders, did everything possible to keep the Cats competitive. Losing Nerlens may have had more of an impact than any of us realize. Not only did Kentucky lose its defensive presence in the middle, but it gave some players an excuse to give up. Without Nerlens, Kentucky’s weaknesses in the post are exposed, and without the extra effort they did show against Missouri, they’re lost.
2) Collapse on defense
Poor shooting killed the Cats last night, but defensive breakdowns didn’t help. I think that a lot of players on this team relied on Nerlens’ defensive presence and once it was gone, weren’t capable (or willing) of stepping up to fill the void. Willie Cauley-Stein tries, but he is a year away from having the defensive skills he needs to go the NBA. We’ve seen glimpses of Alex Poythress’ potential inside, but too often he reverts to passively watching plays happen instead of being aggressive. While Kentucky actually outrebounded Georgia last night, there have been few things more frustrating than watching the Cats’ opponents get endless second chances because they fight harder for boards.
3) Lack of Maturity
You’ve heard Cal and the players say it time and time again: certain guys just don’t give the effort they need to for the Cats to win. At this point, with only one game left in the regular season, you can’t blame that on youth. Cal said that players giving up in close games shows a lack of discipline. Last night, Archie Goodwin was downright blunt about it, calling out his talented teammates for their lack of effort: “It just hurts, because we have the talent and we have the players and everything we need. The athleticism, everything. But as long as we don’t fight, then what’s the point of having the people that we have on the team.”
4) Lack of team chemistry
That lack of effort seems to have led to some dissent in the locker room. It’s the players who don’t want to give up on the season (Archie, Willie Cauley-Stein) vs. those who have already packed their bags (Poythress, Harrow). While Willie said that Alex is still “his brother,” his recent play has been frustrating: “You can be mad at him on the court, but you have to pick him up outside of the court and try to get him back in to regroup and get your mind right for the next game because we gotta have this win against Florida.”
5) Defeatist attitude
Cal took the blame for this team’s struggles after the game last night, but I don’t buy it. His staff has tried every single thing in the book to get some of these guys motivated, even resorting to dodgeball to try to recapture the joy of the game. You can coach, guide and push players, but ultimately, it comes down to how much they want to win. Whether due to personalities or frustration, several of these players look like they’ve given up. A few weeks ago, a team meeting helped them regroup to beat Missouri, but I’m afraid that the snowball of depression from the past two losses will be too much to overcome. I hope they prove me wrong.
As for the rest of us? Like Willie Cauley-Stein said, all we can do is have faith. And alternative plans for the rest of March.