The Five Stages of Losing Bolden

In plotting the five stages of grief, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross left out disappointment. Skipped right over it.

But that was 1959. And how could Kübler-Ross, or any of her Swiss countrymen, understand the emotion of Kentucky fans waiting for weeks to hear from Marques Bolden, only to have him expose a Duke jersey under his shirt.

There is certainly going to be disappointment throughout Big Blue Nation, poised to have another championship-level freshman class – and then this!

Losing a recruit is not fun. Losing Andrew Wiggins to Kansas, Anthony Bennett to UNLV, Ben Simmons to LSU – disappointing. But this was worse. This was Duke. The Evil Empire.

OK. Let’s take a breath and reset.

First, this may be addition by subtraction. Maybe Bolden’s heading to Durham, North Carolina frees playing time for Bam Adabayo, Sacha Killeya-Jones and Wenyan Gabriel. Kentucky fans remember well how a clogged roster cost Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis minutes in their freshman seasons.

Big deal, you say. How much better could that year have gone for Kentucky? Well, it didn’t take long for many Wildcat fans to insist the Wisconsin game might have gone the other way if Ulis and Booker had been on the court down the stretch.

And who knows how much better Towns might have been in March if he’d had more time on the court, developing his game, in January and February. Towns had less playing time than Trey Lyles, way less than Willie Cauley-Stein. Towns actually had only the seventh-most minutes on that Kentucky team.

Maybe some important chemistry was lost with all the impressive moving in and out of platoons of players. Maybe, in the heat of that game, Towns would have gotten the ball repeatedly in those crucial minutes. Maybe Andrew Harrison would have an instinctive sense of where the freshman likes the ball. Maybe Towns would have better known to position himself where Harrison would be looking for him. Maybe.

Second, having the best freshmen is not necessarily a ticket to the NCAA championship. Kentucky, for all its recruiting success under John Calipari, has won just one. That’s not a gripe. The last seven seasons have been (almost) nothing but joyful for Big Blue Nation – none better than that incredible 2014-15 campaign. But that team did not win the national title. Duke did. Ouch.

Nor did Wiggins, Simmons and Bennett win NCAA titles for their schools. Simmons’ team didn’t even make the tournament. Closer to home, the Skal disappointment is still fresh in BBN’s memories.

Third, Bolden’s decision opens the door for Marcus Lee to return. I’m not saying that’s an equivalency. But Lee is a veteran with certain proven skills – he can leap high and block shots. And he has had three seasons to learn the canny skills of positioning for rebounds. Lee knows his limits and has worked on them – a perfect role-player, if he comes back.

Fourth, Kentucky still has a world-class freshman group. In the ESPN 100, Wenyan Gabriel, a 6-10 leaper and shot-blocker, was rated 14th. Bolden, a 6-10 leaper and shot-blocker, was 16th.

Fifth, Kentucky fans often forget about the guys who are returning, as if not going one-and-done is somehow a sign of failure. Five months ago, the Nation was suddenly turned on by Derek Willis. He’s back, presumably healthy, and what team wouldn’t benefit from a 6-foot-9 senior who can shoot from outside?

Dominique Hawkins – a dogged defender, experienced point guard and decent shooter – is also back for his senior season. Mychal Mulder, another good shooter, is back. The two big men from Down Under, Isaac Humphries and Tai Wynyard, are back. It’s a shame, however, that the athletic, very promising, Charles Matthews won’t be returning.

And what about Isaiah Briscoe, a gold-plated recruit of a season ago? During his freshman campaign, much was made of the holes in his game, his shooting in general and his free-throw shooting in particular. But he brought intensity and energy to the court, another bulldog on defense and an unstoppable force to the hoop.

In fact, Briscoe is the beau ideal of Calipari’s dribble-drive offense. This coming year, the offensive talent is spread around, a perfect foil for Briscoe’s game – if he comes back.

What would Elisabeth Kübler-Ross say about all this? She’d probably say it’s denial, her first stage of grief. Four to go, ending with acceptance. That all starts with Big Blue Madness in October – and finishes in Phoenix in April. VT