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By Les Johns | @KernelJohns
It’s all fun and games while cutting down nets and sending droves of players to the NBA.
John Calipari’s first three years as head coach at UK produced 102 victories, two Final Fours, one national championship and 15 NBA draft picks (11 in the first round). Despite personally despising the NBA’s one-and-done rule, Calipari embraced the top-level recruits most affected by the regulation.
Many were convinced that he had it all figured out. Simply rinse and repeat. Send one group off to the NBA, sign another top-rated recruiting class, wave a magic wand and produce another title contender.
This season has proved it isn’t quite that easy.
“The whole thing here, it’s a players-first program,” Calipari said before the season started. “Every decision I make is based on what’s right for these kids. Everything I do is based on them and if I do right by them and keep doing right by them, they’ll drag us where we want to go.”
Right now, it is entirely possible the Cats might be dragged straight into the NIT. What is UK basketball really about? The next month of activity will determine that — more so than defeating Kansas for the championship last year or having five first-round draft picks in the 2010 NBA Draft. If UK is really a players-first program and if UK is really alone in the stratosphere of fan support for its college basketball program, then now is the time to prove it.
This season has seen at least three different phases of Coach Cal. “Disciplinarian Cal” was in full force early in the season, making the team run in practice when they made mistakes and instituting “Camp Cal” — a series of early-morning workouts during Christmas break, designed to increase endurance and mental toughness. “Encouraging Cal” came out as SEC play began, as he cheered the team on more from the sidelines and told the media often, “I like my team.” “Confused Cal” seems to have surfaced after Saturday’s 30-point drubbing at Tennessee, the Cats’ first game without standout freshman forward Nerlens Noel, who was lost for the season with a torn ACL.
“We’re going to have to go back to the drawing board. I’m going to have to figure out exactly how we’re going to have to play offensively and what we’re going to have to do defensively, and we’ll go from there,” Calipari said after the loss Saturday.
If Calipari puts a great plan in play, will this team execute? “We’ve got a couple of guys that are basically not real coachable,” Calipari said. “We’re leaving every timeout, ‘This is what you must do, boom, boom, boom,’ and the guy comes out and does the opposite three things. We’ve got some growing up to do.”
The Cats have to respond, and they have to respond quickly. The seven-game season that started Saturday is now only six, and the Cats need to win four or five of those to be in any contention for the Big Dance. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi’s latest Bracketology update has the Cats completely out of the NCAA Tournament.
If Big Blue Nation really has the best fans in college basketball, now would be the time to rally behind the team instead of ripping them apart. Freshman forward Willie Cauley-Stein tweeted shortly after the game Saturday, “We have really good fake fans!! For all the real ones out there please stay behind us we still can change this around #havefaith.” Cauley-Stein was one of the players who had deleted has Twitter account earlier in the season because of negative remarks from fans.
Hopefully practice and classwork will occupy enough of the players’ time to keep them off the message boards and blogs — they are mostly a vitriolic cesspool. The team will need fan support, especially at Rupp Arena, in the final stages of the season. Four of the final six games are at home, including a vital matchup for ESPN GameDay on Saturday against Missouri.
When the ESPN show came to Lexington in 2010, the Cats set an attendance record of 22,000 for the 11 a.m. airing. The Cats had set a goal of breaking that record, but a UK spokesman said Sunday that “almost 13,000 tickets have been ordered or distributed.” The tickets are free and are available at the UK ticket office, Rupp Arena box office or at Ticketmaster.com.
Calipari has made it clear that UK is a players-first program. If that is the vision for the program, then coaches, players and fans should embrace it fully — not just when the team is winning.