Column: Grant shows coaching chops in loss to UK

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Now more than halfway through the Southeastern Conference schedule, the likely top three candidates pushing for league Coach of the Year are in a unique position: None of the three have ever so much as received a single vote for the honor.

Makes sense, I guess. All three are brand new to the conference.

Two of those names surely to be in the talks coached in Rupp Arena on Tuesday night: UK’s John Calipari and Alabama’s Anthony Grant. The other, Georgia’s Mark Fox, visited Lexington on Jan. 9.

Cal’s credentials are fairly obvious: He’s taken an NIT team a year ago to a current No. 3 ranking, well on its way to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

But Grant’s team hasn’t been quite as dominant. Now 13-11 overall and 3-7 in SEC play, the resume doesn’t appear to align with typical Coach of the Year lines. The Crimson Tide have averaged just 68.2 points per game this season, and that figure seemed a bit generous on Tuesday—Alabama scored just 55 points against a UK defense maybe trying to thaw out a bit from the winter freeze coming down outside the arena doors.

Looking past the poor offensive execution on both ends of the floor — that’s not a coaching problem, that’s a player problem — Grant forced his gameplan down UK’s throat, up until the Tide’s deficit became too significant to overcome without trying the old let’s-hope-they-miss-their-free-throws routine.

Because UK won, Calipari was happy with the way things panned out. But a Coach Cal team that scrambled to reach 66 points in a win, won despite being told (by a far less talented crew) how the game would be played: slow.

“The gameplan was to try to keep Kentucky out of transition as much as we could,” Grant said.

Grant said what made practicing to play against the Cats so difficult was being able to get a realistic gauge on just how big and how fast UK is. UK, by average, is the tallest team in all of college basketball and Alabama, against an average opponent, comes across as a bit undersized.

And no team this side of the Jamaican 4×100-meter relay Olympic team will be able to outgun the Cats on foot.

So with less talent than most other SEC schools, Grant neutralized UK’s most glaring advantage, perhaps most effectively of any of UK’s opponents so far.

Even at 3-7 so far in SEC, that’s Coach of the Year material.

“Here’s what Anthony did,” Calipari said. “What you’re finding out is, there’s a bunch of good coaches in this league. He gave his team a chance to win, would you say? On the road in Lexington, Ky., his team had a chance to win. That’s what you do as a coach. They kept the game in the 60s, we wanted it in the 80s.”

Because of his team’s standing in the league, Grant likely won’t earn Coach of the Year honors. He may not garner many votes, either. If Calipari wins it, it’s because he deserves it. Same with Fox, who is in a similar position as Grant.

But the award isn’t given to the coach with the highest winning percentage. Otherwise, why vote on it? The standings would vote for themselves. The award is presented because an up-and-down win-loss record doesn’t say everything about how a coach (or his players) perform throughout the season. In Grant’s case, the record should almost be ignored.

Either way, don’t expect either of these coaches to go on much longer before the votes start rolling in.

James Pennington is a journalism senior. E-mail [email protected]