The most common complaint I’ve heard from Kentucky fans this season is, “I just can’t get into this team.” The other is, “They just don’t have it.” Frankly, after last night’s win over Texas A&M, I’ve had it with both arguments.
Kentucky should not have won last night. Not only did Wenyen Gabriel foul Tyler Davis in the final two seconds (thanks for not noticing, refs!), the Cats were without their starting point guard and a backup center facing a veteran team with whom they matched up terribly that desperately needed a win. Yet, somehow, Kentucky won, despite Kevin Knox still not playing to his potential and zero interior defense. Regardless, some fans still grumble, lamenting all of the Kentucky’s growing pains and pining for the days when the Cats would steamroll opponents.
It’s time for a reality check. Not to be a Caliparrot, but this is the youngest team in college basketball; not just “our best players are freshmen” young, but “our top six scorers are freshmen” young. This year’s freshman class is producing more than any other of the John Calipari Era — 79.2% of the minutes, 86.1% of the scoring and 69.6% of the rebounding — because they have to. Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones have been great (more on them in a minute), but the core of this team is babies. If you came into this season expecting Kentucky to steamroll opponents, you set yourself up for disappointment. Don’t blame the “KSR hype machine” either; all along, we’ve warned you guys this was going to be a process. More than ever, Calipari tried to brace fans for what is coming.
That’s why I don’t understand the vitriol. Sure, the Cats look like absolute crap on defense more often than not and, inevitably, someone is going to disappear for one (or two or three) game. But, judging by the backlash of criticism, you would think all of that was coming from a junior and senior-laden squad instead of a bunch of kids trying to break bad habits. Learning is not easy, especially when you’re doing it with no crash cushion in front of a fanbase that expects nothing but the best.
So, why are we so hard on them? The easy answer is, we’ve been spoiled by success. Calipari’s best teams have blended superstar freshmen talent with veteran experience, and even the ones that were short on the latter had at least a sophomore guard and a few other sophomores or juniors to ease the transition. Patrick Patterson, Darius Miller, Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress, Dominique Hawkins, and Derek Willis will never get enough credit because, for the most part, their biggest contributions came behind the scenes. Wenyen and Sacha are carving their roles as contributors, but as Calipari said earlier this week, as sophomores, they’re still going through the process too.
Another way this season is different than others: the SEC has never been so unforgiving. In past years, you could count on easy home wins and at least two or three easy road wins. Not this year. The influx of talent — both players and coaches — in the league a few years ago is finally paying off, which is great for Kentucky’s resume but leaves little margin for error. Loafing through a routine home game vs. a lower level SEC team is a luxury this young team just doesn’t have. Stumbles have and will continue to happen; instead of being infuriated by the bad, we should all try being encouraged by the good, because there is a lot of good.
A few ugly stretches aside, one thing you can’t fault this team for is effort; it may not always come in the form you’d like, but there’s no denying that this team is trying. Like I wrote last night, I’ve never seen a team try so hard to both win and lose a game like Kentucky did vs. A&M. The fight was clearly there; unfortunately, the errors were too. With two months of SEC play ahead of them, there are plenty of opportunities to learn.
There are also plenty of players to love. For those of you complaining that you just can’t get into this team, how can you not love PJ Washington and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander? Both freshman have exhibited unbelievable toughness over the past month to the point that Kentucky can’t afford to not have them on the court. PJ was born in Louisville and grew up a Kentucky fan for goodness’ sake.
Or what about Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones? After somewhat disappointing freshman years, they’ve found their roles and positively influence the team when in. Quade Green may not be Tyler Ulis 2.0 as some had hoped, but he’s arguably Kentucky’s best shooter and will be the stable hand we need for years to come. Hamidou Diallo and Kevin Knox have struggled, but if the Cats are coping this well without them, imagine what they’ll be like once they pull it together. And then there’s Jarred Vanderbilt, the mystery piece just dripping with intrigue.
Yet, there’s still anger that they’re “just not getting it.” Fury that the “light hasn’t come on” and “this group is soft.” In some cases, that may be true; however, in a season in which NOBODY is great in college basketball, haven’t we learned by now that it’s way too early to throw in the towel? What’s the fun in being a fan if you only expect your team to lose, or even worse, only expect them to win? That game was fun last night. Sure, it almost gave me a heart attack, but it was exciting. There was a sequence in the second half when Shai got a steal and threw it ahead to Hamidou Diallo for a slam that shows you what this group is capable of. In March, I’ll take that ridiculous length and athleticism over almost anything else.
And say Kentucky does go down in the second round this year. With only two, maybe three guys likely to go to the draft, they’ll return more players than ever before. Add in another intriguing freshman class and you’ve got another perfect storm brewing. Regardless of what happens in March, this year is an incredible foundation on which to build. At the very least, be excited for that.
So, as our New Year’s Resolution, can we all just take a deep breath and try to enjoy the ride? Because this is all a lot more fun when you do. Promise.