Kentucky Cycles through the Five Stages of Grief

I think that, right about now, Kentucky fans are plunged in grief – the grief that comes with being only an “ordinary” team, pushed around by the likes of Auburn and LSU.

UK has had a string of outstanding teams in the John Calipari era: four Final Four teams including one national champion and one team that had an historic 38-game run.
It’s also had one team that the NCAA tournament wasn’t interested in, and that lasted in the NIT for only one game. Big Blue Nation doesn’t want to think about the possibility of a repeat of that.

And so, in its grief, another road loss in which its beloved team blew a 12-point second-half lead, it is cycling through Kübler-Ross/Kessler’s classic five stages. Starting with:

Denial

This is Kentucky. We have the best program, the best coach, the best talent. Skal is too good not to turn it around. Cal will straighten him out. The freshmen will come around, too. They’re young, they make mistakes – freshman mistakes. And don’t forget, Alex Poythress is still recovering from his knee injury.
Didn’t we beat Duke? Didn’t we beat Louisville?

Anger

So what’s taking Poythress so long? And why does Marcus Lee disappear every other game? Why can’t Isaiah Briscoe make free throws? And does he really have to drive into the middle every single time he has the ball?
Why can’t Jamal Murray put two good halves together? Maybe the problem is those ridiculous shots he takes? And why doesn’t Cal use Derek Willis? He’s big, he can shoot. It can’t be worse than what we’ve got!

Bargaining

Maybe if we just shifted the lineup a little bit. Tai Wynyard’s big and strong. Let’s give him a chance. Maybe he won’t score. Maybe he’ll foul out. At least we won’t get pushed around. Hey, his parents are international wood-chopping champions.

Or maybe Derek Willis is about to step up.

Besides, Cal always turns these teams around. Remember the Final Four runs of 2011 and 2014? Those teams struggled early, just like this one.

What did Cal say after the last game? “It’s January 16. We’re fine. I’m not worried about it.” If he’s not worried…

And please, holy power that determines such things, just don’t let Louisville win the national championship.

Depression

Skal is hopeless. Lee is hopeless. The season’s hopeless. This was supposed to be such a good year. What happened? Calipari’s going to the NBA. I just know it.

Acceptance

So who’s the freshman class for next year?

If it’s a little too early for acceptance, I think depression is fast becoming a fitting state of mind for BBN. The loss at Auburn exposed the flaws in this team’s makeup.
For a while, now, the issue was lack of consistency, but I’m afraid consistency has settled in – as in a consistent lack of interior presence. A Skal Labissiere playing at least close to as-advertised would have kept the Cats competitive on the boards and sealed the interior defense. But Skal’s game is just way too undeveloped.

He looks like he could still turn into a marvelous athlete. He has the height and the skills. His silky athleticism and deft shooting touch could make him another Trey Lyles.
Nerlens Noel, who came in with much the same hype, had an offensive game far-less-developed than Skal’s. But Nerlens had the physique. Skal gets pushed around and out-muscled, and he doesn’t have the hand or arm strength to hold onto the balls he tries to grasp.

If he resists the sirens whispering in his ear and comes back for another year – or maybe three! – he could yet develop into the All-American center he promised to be.
But whether he comes back and develops or not – that doesn’t help this year’s situation. With a minimal Skal, a too-skinny Lee and a broad-shouldered Poythress who’s two or three inches too short, this team doesn’t have the inside game.

And what was it Cal said last week? A team without an inside game is a fraud?

Which leaves it all up to the guards. Great guards have driven their teams to national success almost all by themselves – Connecticut’s Kemba Walker and Shabazz Napier, to cite two recent examples; Illinois’ Deron Williams and Dee Brown, to go back a decade.

Murray, with his array of shots and unlimited confidence, could take over a game like Walker used to. Maybe that will be the script in March.
Hmmm. Which stage of grief was that?