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It’s been a while since the Kentucky Wildcats basketball team didn’t make an appearance in the Top 25. After consecutive losses to unranked Notre Dame and then at home to Baylor, the Cats find themselves on the outside looking in for the first time in a very long time this week.
Kentucky was grossly overrated to start the season. Here was a team that had no returning starters, no players with significant experience except for a transfer from mid-major Wright State (Julius Mays) and yet the pollsters were quick to anoint the Cats a top 3 team. Based on what?
Based on hype. Coming in were four of the top freshmen in the country. These are players who collected five stars from scouting services and thrilled UK fans with their edited YouTube highlight videos. But the fact is — they had never played a second of college basketball. Most had very limited experience going up against talent comparable to themselves.
These freshmen at UK are not afforded the opportunity to come in, watch and learn how major college basketball is played. They’re put on the court at the opening tip-off and the learning curve can be harsh. They were lucky to win at Maryland, and wouldn’t save an unexpected performance by Jarrod Polson.
The next four games provide the Cats an opportunity to get better. More importantly, the next several weeks give Coach John Calipari the chance to spend more time in practice with the players. A test of their progress will come Dec. 29 against Louisville. I’m not sold it will be enough.
This is the first year we’re really seeing Calipari’s one-and-done system in full force. The previous three years, all of which have been extremely successful, were teams anchored by experienced players returning. Players like Patrick Patterson, Ramon Harris, Deandre Liggins, Josh Harrelson, Darius Miller and others helped guide the youngsters. This year’s freshmen have no such mentors. And if Cal’s dream of sending his high-profile recruits to the NBA after eight months comes true again – next year’s Kentucky team will be facing the same scenario.
Meanwhile, up the road in Bloomington, Tom Crean has done things in a more traditional way. Instead of assembling a team every eight months, he’s built a program that’s currently number one in the nation and has as deep a bench as any team in the nation. It may be too early to compare Cal’s philosophy to Crean’s — but in five years we might be able to look back and see who’s had the most consistent success from this point forward.
Louisville and WKU go bowling
Congratulations to the Louisville Cardinals and Western Kentucky Hilltoppers. Both will be going bowling this winter.
Louisville finished the season at 10-2 and will head to New Orleans to play in the prestigious Sugar Bowl against Florida. That’s quite an accomplishment for Coach Charlie Strong, who continues to be the subject of numerous coaching rumors. I hope Strong stays and there’s plenty of reasons why he should.
Strong is in his 50s and is not a young coach looking to make a name for himself. He’s established, respected and has the opportunity to create a lasting legacy in Louisville. Now that the Cardinals are affiliated with a major conference, the ACC — Strong will be able to recruit even better, and the rewards for a successful season will likely mean higher rankings and who knows — maybe a possible shot at a national championship.
Louisville Athletic Director Tom Jurich has all but promised U of L will match any salary Strong is offered elsewhere, and the cost of living in Louisville is probably lower than in many of the places wooing him. I really see no drawbacks to Strong staying put, building the Cardinal program even further, and when retirement beckons, he can walk away with fans openly discussing whether the stadium should be forever known as Papa John-Charlie Strong Stadium.
Down in Bowling Green, Willie Taggart’s team finished slow, but matched last season’s 7-5 record. They were left off the bowl invitation list last year, but this year will be headed to Detroit for the Little Caesar’s Bowl against Central Michigan. Taggart’s name may also be batted around for jobs at a little higher level than where he is now, but unless he gets an offer from a school at a major conference, he too might think long and hard about staying put.
Mark Stoops at UK
Kentucky’s Joker Phillips didn’t have such a decision to make. It was made for him and thankfully he landed on his feet as a wide receivers coach at Florida. Meanwhile, the excitement seems to grow each day for new coach Mark Stoops who was formally introduced to UK fans on Sunday afternoon.
Stoops brings experience at some major schools and a refreshing dose of confidence to Lexington as he seems intent on doing what many think is next to impossible — turning Kentucky into a winning football program. He actively sought out the job and when he interviewed, he came carrying a plan he shared to not only help Kentucky contend for a SEC championship, but to win it.
I’m most impressed by his stated intentions to expand his recruiting base north. So many have tried to suggest that Kentucky has to compete for recruits in the south, while ignoring the fact that at this point, that’s nearly impossible. Kentucky is getting leftovers in the south after all the high-profile SEC teams, along with programs at Clemson, Florida State, Miami, Ga. Tech and others pick from the top.
Stoops, who for the past few years has been the defensive coordinator at Florida State, will no doubt use his connections in the Sunshine State, but he says Kentucky must go to Ohio to get players as well. A native of Youngstown, Ohio, Stoops knows that area and its rich high school football traditions. He will be able to sell those kids on the chance to play in the premier football conference, and yet be close enough to home for mom and dad to come watch.
NFL and Gun Control?
The murder-suicide involving Kansas City Chief Jovan Belcher and his girlfriend, who was also the mother of his infant child, shocked the NFL over the weekend. It’s been reported that Belcher had struggled with head injuries and alcohol and there had been some history of turmoil between the couple in recent months.
There was some debate over whether the Chief’s game Sunday the day after the shootings should be played, but it went on as scheduled. The Chiefs had a moment of silence before the game, not to specifically honor Belcher, who was the trigger man in the incident, but rather to remember victims of domestic violence.
That was a fitting observance, but Sunday night during the NBC telecast of their NFL game, long-time sportscaster Bob Costas went full-political on the topic of gun control in an ill-timed tirade that most fans felt was inappropriate.
Guns are not responsible for domestic violence. Maybe the alcohol played a more key role in the lead-up to the violence. Of course, NBC and the NFL get a lot of money from that industry, so Costas didn’t want to bite the hand that feeds him. Maybe it was the head-injuries. Who knows?
What is clear is that Costas took a tragedy and turned it into an opportunity to get on a soapbox to spout his left-wing opinion on a topic that really wasn’t at issue. Even if Costas had his way and all guns were outlawed – do you think that would stop domestic violence? Costas only has to look back into his past to answer that question. A former colleague of his was named O.J. Simpson, whose wife and friend were murdered not with a gun, but with a knife.