The New Season Is Here

Kentucky’s Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress and Karl-Anthony Towns defended the rim against Georgetown’s Tony Kimbro during the 121-56 Wildcat victory over the Tigers.

Kentucky’s Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress and Karl-Anthony Towns defended the rim against Georgetown’s Tony Kimbro during the 121-56 Wildcat victory over the Tigers.

Tony Vanetti:  What has happened to the University of Kentucky’s defense? The last couple of weeks they have decided not to put a helmet on anybody, to the dismay of Coach Stoops. They just can’t do anything against these last few teams.

Steve Kaufman: I guess you can’t coach tackling. Or you can’t coach tackling in a short period of time. That’s been one of the frustrations.

Vanetti: Well, you looked good against Florida, even in a loss. You looked so good against South Carolina, and Mississippi State. And I’m talking about effort, defensive effort. And Coach used the word ‘embarrassing’ about seven or eight times in his post-game press conference.

Kaufman: I just wonder if those three games you mentioned were fool’s gold. We lost to Florida, who didn’t turn out to be very good. And we beat South Carolina, who didn’t turn out to be very good. Obviously, Mississippi State was good, but we gave up a lot of points in all three games, we didn’t tackle well in any of those games. Obviously, based on Saturday, both sides of the ball sort of disappeared. The offense had a pretty good second quarter, then they disappeared.

Vanetti: Patrick Towles needs help; he can’t do it all by himself. He’s back there, and the pocket collapses, he’s got to have Boom Williams or Jojo Kemp or Heard step up in the next two games. You’ve got two more shots to go bowling. One of those guys has to step up and get 150-200 yards rushing. Is that asking too much? No, you’ve got to get out there and run the ball.

Kaufman: Kemp has been demoted, so I don’t know how much we’ll see him, but you said ‘step up.’ I think somebody’s got to step up and make a block out of the back field. He needs more protection. And if the linemen aren’t going to give it to him, somebody out of the backfield has to do that. He looks skittish back there. I’m just concerned that it’ll ruin him forever, that perhaps he’ll never recover from this.

Vanetti: He looks like a tough kid; he is a big kid. If anybody can take the blows, it’s him. He comes from great stock, obviously. He’ll be fine, I think, once they get it together. These are young kids, they’re freshmen and sophomores, they’ll look back on this and say, ‘we took our lumps, and we learned’, and they move on. I want to ask you, Kentucky guy, if you’ve seen any of the Louisville basketball games, and your opinion on that.

Kaufman: I have not seen a single Louisville basketball game, but I’ve read about them. I was surprised, I thought you’d want to talk football with me, rather than basketball. I don’t know; here’s the thing about Louisville basketball every year. Every year based on the year before, they’re ranked in the top 10. Always a good ranking, and they’ve lost some people from the year before. I always say ‘Oh, I think that’s over-ranking’. What Louisville has every year that they haven’t lost, is Pitino. I just think the guy’s a genius. He’s one of the best coaches around. Now, that’s not a huge, dramatic statement; a lot of people agree with that estimation. But, I was in New York when he coached the Knicks, and he turned that program around. And then he came here to Kentucky and turned that program around. He’ll find a way to win, he’ll find a way to get to the Final Four. I guess what I’m saying is, there are a lot of question marks with Blackshear the backcourt, but I think Pitino on the bench is worth a lot.

Vanetti: He certainly is. We love him over there at Big Red, but I’ve got to tell you, I think it is a legitimate top 10 team. I think they’ve got a shot at the Sweet 16 or Elite 8, and if they get lucky in the draw, they could make it to the Final Four. I think there would be a lot more excitement in Louisville in that case. If only you didn’t have that darn LA Lakers team down in Lexington that look like they’re going to steam roll pretty much everyone all season long.

Kaufman: We’ve thought that before about that Kentucky team. And I’m not complaining about his [Calipari’s] record; his record’s pretty impressive, but it’s tough to steam roll. It’s tough to go wire to wire. Look at Wichita State last season, look at Florida last year; that tournament is a killer. And you never know what’s going to happen. They look good.

Vanetti: They’re a scary bunch. I think they’re going to physically beat up teams. I think they’re just not going to outscore them, I think by the end of the game, you’re going to have teams, and good teams, whose wills are just going to be broken. I can’t wait for the Dec. 27 matchup at the KFC Yum! Center. [Chris] Jones and Terry Rozier and [Montrezl] Harrell aren’t scared of anyone. And that Kentucky team is built to bully you. I think it’s going to be one of those epic match ups. Cannot wait to see that game.

Kaufman: One of the things about Kentucky, about this whole platooning thing, which you know is just, to me, another Calipari tweak deal. He’s great at controlling the conversation. By the way, I can’t imagine that it’s going to hold up as designed for the entire year; it just can’t. There are too many variables in a game. Sometimes you want your best shooter on the court in the last minutes of the game. Sometimes you want your best rebounders, sometimes you want to get your bad free throw shooters out of the game. But the one thing about it that I’ve always thought is powerful, is nobody’s playing 30 minutes. And nobody’s getting tired. Nobody is gasping. I don’t mean that college basketball players can’t or shouldn’t be able to play 35 minutes; sure they should. But, there’s a difference between having played 35 minutes and coming fresh off the bench. That, I think could be a real difference maker.

Vanetti: I’m with you, I think the platoon will break down eventually. I don’t see how that’ll go the rest of the year. You know, Willie Cauley-Stein has that tendency to disappear for five or 10 minutes. And when that happens, Dakari Johnson is going to be off the bench lightening fast. Because Dakari Johnson is such a stud at the five. And the second that Willie doesn’t look like he’s giving the right effort or doing something the right way, coach is going to jump the platooning by putting Dakari in, I promise.

Kaufman: The thing about Willie is, I always thought he must have some systemic issues. Because he always seems to get tired. There seems to be a stamina issue with him. Maybe playing fewer minutes, will help overcome that. But you’re right, Calipari is not going to put these guys out for 10 minutes and just say, ‘have fun and in 10 minutes I’ll call you back’.

Vanetti: It’s not going to work, especially when you get into the meat of the schedule.

Kaufman: What do you think of this Rick-Richard meet coming up?

Vanetti: I think it’s great, I think it’s weird that Minnesota is going to fly here, hang out and practice, and then they’re going to get on the same plane, fly to Puerto Rico. And here’s the interesting part, after the game, after somebody loses, they all have to get back on the same plane and fly back to Louisville, before they get back to Minnesota. And both of those guys hate to lose. Even though it’s father and son, they hate to lose. It’s an interesting dynamic. Richard really impresses me. He’s more like a young Rick. Rick now, is just a softer Rick than he was when he was at Kentucky or New York.

Kaufman: Really?

Vanetti: He’s not the same guy. And Richard seems like he’s got a little of that, he’ll get in your grill. And big Rick has softened up, his players will tell you that. His practices are a lot softer than they used to be.

Kaufman: Does Pitino acknowledge that he’s softer?

Vanetti: I think he does, I think he’s been asked a couple of times about it, and he acknowledges there’s been a softening there. The Hall of Fame and the second National title have put him in a good place.

Kaufman: So you think he’s looking at the exit?

Vanetti: He’s never leaving Louisville.

Kaufman: I think the thing about a lot of these guys, players and coaches (the successful ones), as hyper-competitive as they are, they’re maniacs. They don’t like to lose. So I just wonder if they feel that inside of themselves, and think ‘I’m not driven anymore’.

Vanetti: As long as he keeps getting the good players, he will never leave here. It’s the best arena, in a town that loves him, but doesn’t demand a championship. He’s making $5 or $6 million per year. Where else are you going to go that’s going to pay you that much and you’re king of the hill? He’s never leaving.

Kaufman: I wonder to what extent Calipari’s coming to Lexington, for a whole variety of reasons, has kind of given Pitino a second life. Because he hates him. And they’ve hated each other for a long time. And it’s Lexington, so it’s a natural rivalry. And it’s Lexington, where Pitino used to coach. Maybe the rest of the year he’s softer, but I’ve got to think when it comes to Kentucky, whether it’s the December game or some game during the tournament…

Vanetti: Oh, he hates being one and six in the last seven games, I can promise you that. With a few biggies in there with the Sweet 16 and the Final Four. 2012 was fine; you lost to a better team. But, last year, he knew he had a better team and he lost. And he lost both of them, the regular season and the Sweet 16, and that drove him crazy.

Kaufman: My point, that’s what happens in the tournament. Somebody gets hot, like Aaron Harrison did, and this team that lost 12 games is suddenly on its way to the Final Four. And I’m sure the Wichita State guy felt the same way, ‘that should be me’. And I’m sure that’s eating [Pitino] up.