Let the Madness Begin

Coach John Calipari talks to the media. Photo by Victoria Graff.

Coach John Calipari talks to the media. Photo by Victoria Graff.

We know Big Blue Madness is a very big deal for Big Blue Nation. But why? Is it only because of the frenzied, decades-long Kentucky basketball tradition? Because a little bit of football fatigue generally creeps into BBN around this time of year? Because Kentucky fans always feel there’s some unfinished business hanging over from the previous season? The answers are, no doubt, yes, yes and yes. But there’s another reason.

Every Wildcat year is a new year because of the annual churning of the basketball roster. The special John Calipari sauce is that many of the nation’s most highly rated high-schoolers always comprise the core of his teams. They usually succeed, which makes them NBA bait, which means each following year’s team depends on yet another group of high-schoolers.

And not just “good” freshmen. They’re transformative stars in the making. So why not a frenzy of excitement?

Cal did a smart thing at the Madness event, connecting these freshmen with UK basketball history. They may not have been familiar with Dale Barnstable, Johnny Cox or even Kenny Walker, but the avalanche of ex-players pouring onto the stage – especially those associated with Kentucky’s nine national championships – couldn’t help but make as much of an impact as the packed stands, swirling lights and dazzling pyrotechnics.

When that was over, this year’s team took the court for the usual disarray of thunderous dunks and long-range bombing. In other words, now the gym doors close and Cal and his coaches go to work. There’s much to be done.

Who starts? Who handles the ball? What about Isaiah Briscoe – not particularly fast, not a great shooter, not a slick ball handler, but one of the most ferocious competitors of Cal’s UK era? Is he the team leader who can keep his talented backcourt mates disciplined and focused? And can he hit his free throws?

Last year, UK had a dynamic three-headed backcourt of Briscoe, Jamal Murray and Tyler Ulis. But, great as they were, their impact was dulled without a physical frontcourt. So how different will it be with the imposing Bam Adebayo, the bulked-up Isaac Humphries, the lanky frosh Sacha Killeya-Jones and Wenyen Gabriel and the New Zealand son of woodchoppers, Tai Wynyard? It’s often easy to forget, as well, that Derek Willis may be a stretch four, but he’s also 6-foot-9.

So spitting out the bad taste of an early exit to the 2016 NCAA tournament began, as it usually does, with Big Blue Madness.

Coaches Talk

A couple of recent things:

• Cal stepped, once again, into the question of whether he’d rather win a title or get his guys into the NBA. And everyone rose to take the bait.

It’s kind of ridiculous. Look, Cal talks, and sometimes his convoluted monologues have him contradicting himself twice in the same statement. If you tried to diagram any of his sentences, you’d end up breaking several pencils.

But to suggest that he isn’t driven competitively seems like nonsense. To be successful in sports starts with being fiercely competitive.

I think his winning percentage, Final Four appearances and ex-players in the NBA might be more lightly regarded if he didn’t have that one national title. All coaches, from Adolph Rupp and Branch McCracken to Bobby Knight and John Wooden to Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski to Cal and Rick Pitino, are evaluated by their championship banners, not by their ex-players in the pros.

• Mark Stoops seemed to have lashed out last week at Kentucky fans who criticize the team or leave games early. He said, instead, to blame the coaches, not criticize the players.

I think he misses the fact that UK fans do blame the coaches. Rooting for your school’s sports teams is a 125-year-old tradition. Expecting, even demanding, success is a natural outgrowth of that passion.

Sports is a win/lose proposition. We’ve long ago abandoned the appreciation of elegance, grace and sportsmanship. That’s too bad. But it’s the reason Stoops is paid a lot of money to provide a winning team. Big Blue Nation seriously hopes he’ll get there.

Fans may get frustrated, but I don’t think most people blame the players for not being better than they try to be. Fans appreciate the effort. The onus, always, is on the coaches.

And that begins again on Saturday evening, against Mississippi State. Beyond all expectations of a few weeks ago, Kentucky is suddenly in the hunt, in second place in the SEC East. This game will tell us a lot – about the team, about the season and about the coaches. VT