Tuesday, March 19, 2013

What's In a Name: An NIT State of Mind

Anyone that knows me even remotely well (and some that don't know me at all), knows that I am a huge Kentucky Wildcats fan.  Kentucky Basketball is far and away my favorite sports team to follow, but I am a Kentucky fan through and through.  It doesn't matter if you're talking about basketball, football, baseball, track and field, or rifle...I bleed blue.  Always have, always will.

It's that love of Kentucky Basketball, and sports in general, that leaves me a bit surprised that I've never written about sports on this blog.  I know when I started the blog, I thought I would sprinkle in sports commentaries from time to time.  But when I realized 99% of my readers wouldn't care about my opinions on the Wildcats, or any other sports-related topic, I just put those opinions on Rupps Rafters, or in the comments section on KSR.  This time, however, I can't surround myself with that.  Those folks are far too fair-weather and negative and, right now, that is the last thing I need.  So, I'm going to vent here.

In the world of college basketball, the University of Kentucky is the epitome of success.  The most all-time wins, the most NCAA Tournament appearances and wins, the second-most NCAA Championships, the third-most Final Four appearances..."The List" goes on and on and on.  Aside from the incredible success the Cats have enjoyed on the court, the fanbase is arguably the best fanbase of any team, in any sport, in the world.  We follow our team religiously.  We talk about them all year long.  We pack gyms all across the country to watch them play.  We schedule work, vacations, weddings, and just about any other obligation around the basketball schedule.  For a Kentucky fan, missing a game is an almost unforgivable offense.  But that's how we are.  We take immense pride in the Wildcats because, quite frankly, the state of Kentucky doesn't have a whole lot we can be proud of.  Outsiders can call us backward, inbred, stupid, and anything else...But we still have the best damn basketball program in the country, and won't hesitate to tell you about it.

One of the truly unique aspects of Kentucky basketball, and its fans, is how we revere the great teams down through the years.  It seems every time a great team, or one that is significant in the trajectory of the program, comes along, we apply a moniker to remember them by.  The Fabulous Five, the Fiddlin' Five, Rupp's Runts, the Super Kittens, the Unforgettables, the Untouchables, the Comeback Cats, the Undeniables...They all hold a special place in Kentucky Basketball lore.

That brings us to this year's team...The Unwatchables.  For as long as I've been a fan, I've never seen a team that was more frustrating and maddening to watch as this group, and as I sit here just a few minutes after a disappointing season came to an unfathomable end at the hands of Robert Morris (who?), I am still having trouble pinpointing exactly why.

I guess a lot of the blame can be placed on the shoulders of John Calipari, but not for the reasons you may expect.  In most cases, when a team underachieves, the first place you look is at the head coach.  And you certainly wouldn't be too off-base in doing that...There's no question that he has to take on some of the blame.  But, I think a lot of it comes from the massive success Kentucky experienced over the first three years of Cal's tenure.  It's as if Calipari set his own bar too high, and set himself up for failure to eventually befall him.

Three consecutive number-one rated recruiting classes came to Kentucky from 2010-2012, and none of the three failed to win fewer than 29 games.  Two made the Final Four, and last year's group, arguably the best college basketball team to ever suit up, won an NCAA-record 38 games en route to a national championship.  All of the teams were led by highly-touted freshmen, and all three teams were wildly successful.  It was easy, as a fan, to expect the same from this year's group, no matter how much common sense and logic might have pointed to the contrary.

This group was ranked 3rd to begin the season, but never even resembled a top-5 team.  Sure, the incoming freshman class carried all the accolades and hype that their predecessors had carried, but it was apparent from day one that this group didn't have the same makeup as those other groups.  The "it" factor, whatever "it" is, simply wasn't present with this team.

Personally, my expectations were tempered in comparison to many fans, but I still expected to make the NCAA Tournament, and be in a position to make a deep run.  Calipari has had an unmatched knack for getting young teams to play hard and succeed at a high level, even if they don't turn the proverbial corner until late-February.  But, when our best player, Nerlens Noel, went down in early February with a severe knee injury, it became quite clear this team was never going to live up to the expectations.  And I'm not sure they would have, even if he had stayed healthy.

The most frustrating aspect of this team, and what made them so painful to watch, was their uncanny ability to make boneheaded mistakes.  Their ability to seemingly disappear offensively, even in the midst of a game where they appeared to be clicking on all cylinders.  Blowing double-digit leads and going 7, 8, or 10 minutes without scoring became a trademark.  Driving the ball aimlessly into a quadruple team went from being an early-season sign of youth, to a marked regularity late in conference play.  Selfishness on the offensive end and softness on the defensive end, two characteristics that never appear on a John Calipari team, were always part of this team's makeup.  Obvious mental weakness and an inability to overcome adversity (things that earlier Calipari-coached teams  seemed to lose as the season progressed) reared its ugly head as late as tonight...The last game of the season.  Every time we thought they had turned the corner and began to move forward, they would take two giant steps backward the next game out.  It was like a sick joke, and the punchline was always at the fans' expense.

We really shouldn't have been all that surprised, and we really shouldn't be all that upset.  We won more games than any other team in the history of the NCAA last year.  We rolled to a national title, and had 6 players (6!) drafted into the NBA, including the top two overall picks.  Anthony Davis had arguably the greatest individual season in the history of college basketball by winning the National Player of the Year, National Defensive Player of the Year, Freshman of the Year, Final Four MVP, a national title, being the #1 pick in the NBA Draft, and by winning a gold medal in the summer Olympics.  Kentucky Basketball was king.  But that was last year.  And to Kentucky fans, despite our propensity to trumpet our illustrious past, last year amounts to little more than a hill of beans.

I said last year I would trade a national championship for an NIT berth this season, and I meant it when I said it.  However, I never actually expected that to be the case, and am still having trouble wrapping my head around it.  That being said, though, I know next year will be different.  The balance of power will be returned, and we'll be right back where we were the last three seasons.  But, that doesn't make this any easier to stomach, and will make for a very long offseason.

While this team may have been the Unwatchables, it didn't keep me from fully investing in them, just like I always do.  Just like I will next year, and the year after that.  I'm sure any fanbase in the world would trade the run of success we had from 2010-2012 for this season without even giving it a thought, especially when the future is as bright as it's ever been.  But, that doesn't make it sting any less, and only brings to mind a quote the Brooklyn Dodgers used to throw around when they were consistently falling just short of a World Series title..."Wait til next year."  Next year, indeed.