So Young

Isaiah Briscoe tries to get a rebound and loses his balance during the Kansas game.

Isaiah Briscoe tries to get a rebound and loses his balance during the Kansas game.

They just weren’t ready. It may sound crazy, but I could see it in the ridiculous, over-produced, Michael Buffer introduction of the starting lineup. There were no crazy handshakes or leaping side bumps. The players’ names were called and they solemnly ambled onto the court.

At the time, one might have hoped it was an intense readiness – get rid of all this nonsense and let’s start the game. In retrospect, maybe they were awed by the theatrics of their own home game.

The problem is, young Kentucky is not a great team right now.

It’s a collection of talented players – even some great players. But 21 games into the season, they’re playing with no cohesion, no apparent plan, no concentrated effort.

You could see it against Kansas. The game plan was to get it into Bam. And so they did, dutifully as their coach had ordered, time after time after time. And he was bodied, muscled, double-teamed and couldn’t get much done.

So then what? Plan B? There seemed to be no Plan B.

John Calipari had said, “Don’t hold the ball! Drive it, pass it, shoot it – just don’t stand there holding it.” So when the get-it-into-Bam offense didn’t produce, there they were, standing on the perimeter, on their heels, looking around – holding the ball!

Kansas whipped it around the perimeter, the old weave – just like Phog Allen taught his Jayhawk players 75 years ago – side to side, in and out, until a driving lane opened up or a shooter was unguarded.

And then there was the casual ball-control. Lazy passes. Ill-advised passes. Alley-oop attempts that sailed out of bounds. In a game that was getting close, the Cats didn’t treasure their possessions.

Cal said “young team.” He’s been saying “young team” for eight years. And his young, talented teams have occasionally come together in the NCAA tourney. Two of his four Final Four teams were exactly that, the youngsters of 2011 and 2014 who caught fire and scared the hell out of everyone.

But only one team has gone all the way. We often think of it as “the Anthony Davis team,” but that squad had two sophomores and a senior among its six key players. The point guard, Marquis Teague, did his job, but he was nobody’s idea of a John Wall or Brandon Knight or Andrew Harrison or Tyler Ulis or De’Aaron Fox. He didn’t have to be.

After the game, Calipari mentioned Kentucky’s difficulties with Kansas’ zone defense, especially with Isaiah Briscoe on the bench. That dramatizes the problems with this team: that the absence of one player – and not one of the marquee, lottery-pick players – could cause such a breakdown.

That the sets of skills are so one-dimensional and the bench so weak that taking a man out of the game causes everything to fall apart.

And by the way, we’re talking about the one sophomore, what we call “upperclassman” or “veteran” these days. Doesn’t that say everything?

When a coach is actually right on the court directing his team’s offense down the stretch of a key game, you kind of know that team is lacking veteran leadership.

When players give up a layup, commit a foul, turn the ball over and then look immediately, instinctively, to their bench – to their coach – you kind of know that team is lacking veteran leadership.

Wenyan Gabriel didn’t show up. I know Cal loves his energy, or maybe he just likes being able to say, “We start four freshmen.” But the kid was not there.

Derek Willis was there. He was there infuriating Calipari with a key missed rebound, the failure to box out a couple of other times, the failure to take away Kansas’ straight-line drives. But he also provided some much-needed offense, grabbed six rebounds, blocked a couple of shots and generally hustled and asserted himself.

Willis won’t get drafted in the first round in June. Maybe that’s why Cal would rather bring Gabriel along. Maybe Cal feels Gabriel has a higher March upside than Willis does. But on a night when none of the spectacular freshmen were doing much, Willis kept UK in the game. What he does may be limited, but he did it. What Fox and Monk and Adebayo do is unlimited, but they weren’t doing it.

Chalk this up, perhaps, to the crankiness of losing such a big game – and at home, no less. But somebody who knows something better begin taking this team in hand, or March will truly go out like a lamb. VT

Photo by Victoria Graff.