Not surprisingly to anyone that knows me, my goal of writing every day in 2016 got off to a bumpy start. The launch of the Matt Jones Podcast, some rearrangement at work and the changes coming on the KSR site all took more time than expected, and the writing took a back seat. No excuses however. It is time to do better. With the theory of “Always Set Attainable Goals” now firmly entrenched in my mind, I will set out to write three times a week until the season is over and then move towards more frequency during the lazy Spring and Summer. I have a feeling that a very exciting two months stretch for UK Athletics is coming and I am pumped up about it. So with that in mind, three thoughts on the weekend and life in general:
1. This Kentucky Team has My Full Excitement Now
If we have learned anything over the last seven years of the John Calipari era, it is this. You cannot judge a Calipari team early in the season. Cal starts every season with an idea in mind about how he wants his team to play and the specific playing style that will best fit his roster. Often that mindset works from Day one, as in 2012 and 2015, where the talent clicked at moment one and Kentucky was elite from the opening game. But often Calipari has to play trial and error and it takes some time to get the best out of his (always) new roster. This season Calipari believed he would have a classic Dribble-Drive team…three guards and Poythress run the dribble drive, creating lanes to the basket and open outside shots, while Skal scored on the block and was an elite rim protector. That lineup would play up-tempo, run at every opportunity and had the potential to become a high level defensive team. It was a gameplan designed straight from Calipari’s basketball philosophy and looked to be an exciting team to coach.
It didn’t work out quite like that. Skal was not the offensive weapon the block that UK hoped for and (perhaps more distressingly), his rebounding and defense was significantly below an acceptable level. The penetration ability of UK’s guards was better than advertised (and still is), but the lack of interior scoring made getting to the basket more difficult than the Dribble-Drive requires. Poythress provided little offense from the perimeter (and depending on his effort, occasionally not enough period) and all-to-often the offense was bogged down, sputtering and wasting its potential, like an elite Italian sports car forced to drive in LA Freeway traffic. Calipari tried various tweaks but nothing truly solved the problem until Derek Willis became “so Bullitt County.” Inserting Willis changed the entire dynamic of the team…his three point shooting ability caused his defender to hedge out, creating driving lanes and space on the floor. Alex became a serviceable five and when active, could pull the other team’s big man far away from the basket. The Cats then were able to play with more temp, suffering slightly on defense, but making up for it with quickness and mismatches. With Willis rebounding at a higher level, Ulis transitioning into a dominant scorer and Murray riding waves of hot shooting, UK found its playing style and almost all at once, became a force.
All of this brings me to Saturday night in Lawrence. The final scoreboard says Kentucky lost, but for me the game was the final jolt of excitement I needed to get fully in gear for the March run. For the first time this season, I think Kentucky can win the National Championship. Of course that doesn’t mean they will, or even that they should be among the top five favorites. But the team I saw Saturday night has the pieces necessary to cut down the nets in an otherwise down year in college basketball. Before the flurry of late fouls and corresponding odd lineups, Kentucky outplayed the Jayhawks in the toughest place to play in college basketball. Ulis was a superstar, Alex played very good and everyone who got minutes contributed in some way. Yes, there was poor execution down the stretch and this is something that needs to be improved before March when Kentucky is sure to see many close games. But the reality is that Kentucky looked the part of the better team, done in by a mixture of fatigue, a Selden superstar performance and a (to be generous) shaky whistle. I came away thinking this UK team is leaps and bounds better than the group that lost (bizarrely) in Brooklyn to Ohio State and seemed completely out of sorts just two weeks ago in Auburn. Instead this is Calipari’s sixth team in seven years with a chance to go to the Final Four and win it all. I don’t know about you, but that gets me excited.
2. Appreciate Tyler Ulis
Taking the time to praise Tyler Ulis is not an endeavor that places one out on an argumentative limb of any sort. We all love Tyler and we all think he is a great player. But during this season, Tyler is becoming one of my favorites to ever wear the UK uniform. Leave aside his height and the uncanny way he is able to dominate a game while being (often by far) the shortest player on the court. What makes Ulis such a joy to watch for me is his ability to make the correct decision 95+% of the time, while also often needing to be Kentucky’s best player on the court. It is often said correctly that UK would not have been nearly as dominant in 1996 without the floor leadership of Anthony Epps, whose unselfishness and direction of the team allowed the stars around him to flourish at their highest level. This is true, but imagine if in addition to managing the floor as Epps did, a Point guard needed to score at a Tony Delk-like rate, while defending on the perimeter like a circa 1994 Dale Brown. That is Tyler Ulis. In the same game at the same time, Calipari has to ask Ulis to be the best leader, passer, scorer and defensive player on the team, all the while playing as a second coach on the floor in a hostile environment with virtually no rest. He is asked this nightly and he has consistently risen to the occasion. Saturday he made the occasional late mistake, belabored by an illness and fatigue from his 45 minutes of game action, but he also showcased the traits of stardom. I love watching Tyler Ulis play and it has been a joy to see him wear the UK uniform.
3. Some Random Musings before Monday
— Signing Day is coming on Wednesday and quietly UK is about to have a really strong class. In addition to the guys from Kentucky, Stoops has assembled a quality group of players that can help overcome the momentum lag that occurred due to the end of last season. I know folks are down on football a bit and most have taken the “I don’t want to think about that right now” philosophy. But take some time on Wednesday to follow Signing Day on here and on the UK Athletics live show streaming online. This is a good group and an accomplishment worth celebrating.
— We have to beat Tennessee on Tuesday. Everything I said about this team above is true and will remain true even if they lose. But Kentucky needs to finish 4-1, or at worst 3-2, over its next five SEC road games to finish the season where it wants to going into March. Texas A&M is going to be tough and the road games at Florida, South Carolina and Vandy all present challenges. Dropping a game at Tennessee would be a terrible start and thats why the Cats need to go take care of business against a team that just lost by double digits to a miserable TCU group.
— Thanks to all of you that have been listening to the Matt Jones Podcast and giving it unbelievable numbers online. I have been blown away by how many people have taken the time to listen and it continues to do astoundingly well on the charts. If you haven’t yet subscribed or listened, please do so at this Matt Jones Podcast link (this is the iTunes link, although it is also available on Podbay, Podbean and other podcast apps). There are 10 episodes up and virtually all of them are of the nature that you can listen without it being time sensitive. Check them out and I hope you continue to like the variety of topics.
— Rick Pitino will not be the coach at UL next year.
— Those of you who watch my Periscopes online often see my insane bookshelf and ask for book recommendations. With that in mind, I just finished “The Empathy Exams” which I enjoyed immensely. The overall theme is the notion of empathy and how one can best understand and relate to people by trying to to understand the individual difficulties each person has in their life. I thought parts of it were brilliant and I actually think it can make you a better person just by considering some of its essays. If you have nothing else to do, or are spending too much time yelling at Dan Dakich, check it out.
— Finally, if you listen to the radio show (and if you don’t, you should), then you know that I have offered Shannon the Dude $500 if he can make 80% of his free throws (out of 20) the week of the SEC Tournament live on the air. I know that he can’t, but he claimed to be a good free throw shooter and even enlisted the help of “Lee” a caller who has said that he can make anyone into a great foul shooter. Shannon had his first “lesson” this week and he filmed his initial attempt at the prize. As you can see from the video below, he is quite good already and likely needed no coaching for his odd, but effective, form. Still, I know The Dude will choke when the pressure is on so I remain confident. But for you kids out there wondering how to make free throws (and Isaiah Briscoe), maybe watch Shannon below. He isn’t bad folks
That’s it…have a good rest of your weekend. See you on the radio tomorrow morning.