Late January is a weird, yet important time on the college basketball calendar.
It’s the time of the year where you kind of “are who you are” as a basketball team. If you have a major flaw, there is no changing it. If you have awful team chemistry or a bunch of guys that don’t like each other or a coach that doesn’t know what he’s doing, you can’t hide it. It’s also the time of the year where if you have minor issues, if you turn the ball over too much, or don’t box out, or play down to your competition there is still time to fix it before it’s too late.
I bring this up, because I can’t help but think that this might apply to the 2019-2020 Kentucky Wildcats more than anyone else in college hoops.
By any tangible measurement (win-loss record, ranking, SEC ranking etc.) Kentucky has had an excellent season so far. And there’s no reason to think they can’t or won’t keep it going into March or maybe even early April as well.
Still, for them to reach their full potential as a team, there is still one final step to take. That step is, not playing down to the competition. It’s seeing a bad team on the schedule and deciding from opening tip-off “we’re not only going to beat them, we’re going to destroy them” and then going out and doing it.
This Kentucky team certainly has the capability to do that, to become a truly elite team with a truly killer instinct by March. The question is, will it happen or not?
Now again, to abundantly clear no one is saying that Kentucky has been a “bad” team or disappointing. They could be in much worse shape (just ask Florida). This is still a team that while not perfect, has about as impressive a group of wins as anyone in college basketball. They have beaten the team that is currently leading the ACC (Louisville) and the Big Ten (Michigan State) with wins at Texas Tech and Arkansas as well, in two of the toughest road environments in college basketball.
To their credit this Kentucky group has shown a toughness that few teams in college basketball have to date. They seem to love going into their opponents place, shutting up a loud crowd and proving the doubters wrong. It’s fascinating to me that three of Kentucky’s four biggest wins were away from Rupp Arena (Michigan State, Arkansas and Texas Tech), and in all three of those games Kentucky was actually an underdog in Vegas. And they won each and every time.
Again, it shows that this team loves the bright lights and the big stage. They love silencing an otherwise loud crowd.
Unfortunately for this Kentucky team there are the other games, and that’s where the warts of this team continue to show again and again. Unfortunately, this team does take opponents lightly. They do come out, at least in some moments unfocused, and let bad teams stay in games with them that shouldn’t. Sometimes it results in weird losses (Evansville, South Carolina) and sometimes it results in sloppy wins (Utah Valley).
And even in late January, smack dab in the middle of SEC conference play it’s still going on, following that way-too-close-for-comfort win over Vanderbilt last night. And it needs to get cleaned up before it’s too late.
Look, like a lot of you I watch a ton of college hoops, and believe me when I say that Vanderbilt (with due respect) is probably the worst major conference program in the sport. Not only are they 8-12 following Wednesday night’s loss, but they are in the midst of a 25-game SEC losing streak, and prior to the Kentucky game, none of their recent losses were even particularly close. Prior to Wednesday, Vanderbilt’s last five losses all came by at least 15 points, with two of them by 20 or more. Then they went to Rupp Arena and looked like the Harlem Globetrotters for about 34 minutes, whipping the ball around the perimeter, hitting threes and driving in for easy layups.
Now it’s a credit to Kentucky that they were still able to rally and win going away, but at what point do these prolonged stretches of brain cramps stop? At what point do these guys look on the schedule, see a team that they should beat by 20 – then go out and you know, actually beat them by 20?
Understand, that’s not me being critical of Kentucky. That’s me asking them to take the next step, the final step, to being a team that pushes themselves over the top come March.
Yes, that’s me being nitpicky. But I’m only being nitpicky because I know how good this team can be.
And apparently I’m not the only one asking that same question, since John Calipari said something similar postgame.
When asked what he told the team in the locker room when they trailed by seven at half, his response was simple.
“Why did you think I didn’t go crazy in the first half and I didn’t in the locker room?” he said. “It’s your team. You want to lose, go ahead. I’m fine. It’s your team.”
In other words, what Calipari was saying was simply this: I’m the coach, but I can only do so much. If you want to reach your potential as a team it’s up to you guys.
And it is indeed.
It’s up to them whether they take their game up one final step, and handle their business every time they step on the floor. Or whether they only play hard from the opening when the lights are bright, the ESPN cameras are in town and a Top 25 opponent is on the other side.
And it could be the difference between a fluky early tournament loss and a Final Four run.
It could be the difference between a national title or not.
But it is in fact up to the players.
Up to them whether they want to take the final step or not.