This is not your father’s college basketball.
In the land of one-and-dones, Twitter followers, and 24/7 media coverage, there’s not much room for inconspicuousness when you put on a Kentucky basketball uniform— so much so that one of John Calipari’s favorite catchphrases is “I can’t hide you here” when out on the recruiting trail. But how much is too much? In a sport dominated by 18- and 19-year-old college students, when does all-access become microscopic scrutiny?
This time last year, Kentucky basketball was on top of the sporting world. Fresh off the school’s 8th national championship in April and poised with Rivals.com’s No. 1 recruiting class of 2012, the ‘Cats had earned themselves their very own primetime slot on ESPN with a show called All-Access Kentucky, the first of its kind. A plethora of cameras followed players to practice and even some classes, cultivating audiences with the daily ins and outs of Coach Calipari’s unprecedented college basketball machine. Fast-forward 12 months to a similar situation, though with an entirely different route taken.
Even the most casual of basketball fans know that you can’t win without a point guard. Unfortunately for both parties, Ryan Harrow was not the right fit to occupy the position of Wildcat floor general, no matter how hard he tried. Fans are quick to blame the high pressure expectations and bright lights of Lexington for Ryan’s lack of success, but how justified are they? Cal’s ‘Cats finished an underwhelming 21-12 (12-6 SEC) and missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009, after beginning the season with a No. 3 ranking in the preseason Top 25. With a loss to Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT in front of 3,000 screaming fans in John Calipari’s hometown of Moon Township, PA as the cherry on top of a disastrous season, how do we avoid repeating past mistakes?
In the case of Ryan Harrow, the Big Blue Nation might be onto something. Maybe he did crumble under an insurmountable amount of pressure from 24,000 rabid fans on any given night– but at the end of the day, can you blame him? While it’s true the chemistry was never right with the 2012-2013 Wildcats, the situation forced upon them was hardly ideal for success from the get-go. Nerlens Noel was as good a player to replace Anthony Davis as any, but was the prospect of doing so realistic in the first place? Even Alex Poythress failed to wow spectators like many thought the NBA-bodied teenager should– as an incoming freshman.
It’s September 2013 and fortunately for ‘Cats fans, the rest of the country’s memories must be as short as ours– because Kentucky is back on top again. Led by a record six 2013 McDonald’s All-Americans, the 2014 national title is UK’s to lose. But just how lucky does that make us? It seems that with each upcoming season, the media presence becomes larger and larger, and so does the pressure to win. Student-athletes must be coaxed in ways like never before, such as how to maintain personality on individual social media accounts without crossing any boundaries. Every single breath they take, word they speak, and status they update is fair game for fans and critics, alike.
It’s no secret that the NCAA is no fan of John Calipari, nor he of they. With this in mind, it’s safe to assume the NCAA has placed Kentucky under a giant magnifying glass, waiting for one of its young players to step ever-so-slightly out of line at the first chance they get. This, along with incredible adoration-borderline-scrutiny from diehard fans across the nation, leaves the Kentucky Wildcats in a unique position unlike any other team in America. On the positive side, we the BBN get what we crave. Informed fans have been able to gain more insight on the personality and playing style of UK’s incoming freshman class than ever before. Generally speaking, fans are as familiar with the 2014 basketball team as any team in years past, though Julius Randle & Co. have yet to even step foot on a basketball court outside of the high school arena.
Coach Cal will be the first to let his fans know that preseason rankings are to be taken with a grain of salt. He’ll also be the first to tell you (uncharacteristically, I might add), that this group of ‘Cats is going to be good– really good. But in this world of non-stop sporting news and arguably less than fair media attention, maybe we should let the games do the talking.