story and photo by Tread
One and Done Better than None and Done
When a team and a first year coach come up just short of a NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament Final Four appearance then subsequently send five underclassmen (and four of those freshman) to the big boy league of the NBA in the first round…well, it’s only natural to have large expectations for follow-up success. But just ask The Knack or Boston how easy it is to duplicate a hit. It ain’t.
For a coach who could teach a graduate level course on local public relations Calipari may have to quickly learn the art of explaining loss to the Bluenecks of the Bluegrass this season has he tries to meld the nation’s top recruiting class with a bunch of veterans whose own careers have had moments of hit and miss.
And there is no Patrick Pattersonesque personality of stoic leadership and discipline in this batch of returners, instead a wealth of potential and hopefully a drive to end up playing in the near future with some of their teammates from their near past. There is also the cloud over Enes Kanter, the talented big fella who may or may not have received living stipends and benefits in his teen career in Istanbul (not Constantinople!). Scratch under the surface of this story and I think you land on the side of the “free Enes” movement. The NCAA should let him play. In other spots in the world, you can be a pro and attend school and training academies at an early age if you are good enough and be brought through their system in hopes of making the principle squad. This is very common in soccer around the world, we just aren’t hearing much about it in the United States, especially in basketball. Can the Kanter decision make or break Coach Cal’s second season? I guess we will have to see. I guess one and done in the case seems like a better option that none and done.
This question has no easy answer, like so many others about this season. Foremost on my mind is this one (and I had it last year); can a team whose principle scorers and ball-handlers are freshman win it in the Big Dance? Conventional wisdom will lead you to believe “no.” In the past decade, only about 10 freshman players averaged more than 15 minutes a game. And beyond Carmelo Anthony and Gerry McNamara for the 2003 Syracuse team and Josh Boon who helped out the UConn run in 2004, none of the others even started. So this team will have to make just a little history. But as a team last year they did just that. Five players go in the first round of the draft, freshman teammates John Wall and Demarcus Cousins first-ever, freshman first-team All Americans. That’s a big damned deal which begs the next question.
How do you replace what you lost? I’m no recruiting guru and honestly don’t buy much of what the fan boys of recruitment websites and discussion are selling, but I do think, from what I have seen, Brandon Knight is one hellacious basketball player. Is he the next John Wall? Those floor leader types just don’t come along that often and when you match that speed and floor smarts with a likable smile and a silly dance, well, those are big Nikes to fill. But Knight doesn’t turn the ball over like Wall did early last season. Knight can be a nasty and prolific scorer he has shown in the exhibition games, but maybe more impressive, is that he isn’t just basketball smart, he’s academically a fantastic kid whose upside leads me to believe he can be Cal’s “coach on the floor,” that intangible that can make a good team really great in the clutch.
Great in the clutch—that was always how I thought about Patterson. Steady, the go-to adult, the man amongst the erratic frosh. Who steps up in that role? Darius Miller’s a pre-season All SEC pick but personality is said to be that of a quiet guy best suited for a solid background and support role, so that leaves DeAndre Liggins. I’ve always been a fan, although he has received more than his share of criticism. But last year he became the poster child for the “dog-housed” who persevere and contribute. When Cal lamented the soft play against Pikeville in exhibition, in the next game Liggins brought the tough when a Dillard player tried to foul him on a lay-up by shrugging him off his shoulder with a bruising elbow to the chops which left a fat lip to a shell-shocked defender and a smile on the face of a coach. C’mon Mr. Liggins keep you head on straight…and you will help this team in a large way.
Speaking of large, who takes up the space left by the exit of Big Cuz? Labeled as “immature,” “unproven,” and downright “dirty,” DeMarcus proved the lazy labelers wrong and may ultimately wind up as the best outright pro player once the NBA season moves beyond infancy. Eloy Vargas is a taste bigger than Enes Kanter and these two (if Kanter gets eligible) have to be the space-eaters in this dribble drive offense. Cal is best-known for developing guards but when you think about Cousins, Orton and Patterson and how their play improved over the season under his tutelage…Vargas and Kanter are both capable of drawing defenses outside like most Eurostyle bigs. Cal will have to find a way to allow that prowess while keeping them down low and beasting the brutality of the SEC burly like Georgia’s stud Trey Thompkins and Florida’s experienced middle of Vernon Macklin and Chandler Parsons. Josh Harrelson will have a role off the bench, best advice from this rabid, albeit undersized, Cat fan, “get tough.”
Toughness is one of those abstracts in sports that is hard to define with words, it’s one of those descriptors like “sexy,” you just know it when you see it. From my first glimpse of Eric Bledsoe, I thought “tough.” Doron Lamb seems like the heir apparent as this year’s Bledsoe. Where Bledsoe was all “dirty South,” Lamb is full-on New York City guard. What does that mean? Quick, stylish and above all--tough. Fight for the ball, fight for your shot. Think Ramel Bradley, but think, just maybe, “better.” There’s no shortage of competition at the guard spot. Florida guard Stacey Poole, Jr. with ALL-SEC lineage is a scorer and returning sophomore and Madisonville native Jon Hood will be looking to play that two-guard spot. I wouldn’t be the surprised to see a bit of three guards on the floor at any given time.
To that point, Cal’s team looks to be one of interchangeable pieces and parts and no new player exemplifies that as much as Terrance Jones. Jones has already had a breakout appearance with the team, scoring 39 followed by a game where he couldn’t find the rim. Jones was a headline grabber when he dominated the recruit ticker as he wavered between Washington and UK. His addition to the roster shouldn’t be understated, he is reminiscent of some of the great forwards in Wildcat history like Chuck Hayes, Charles Hurt and that ilk of player that could hurt the opposition in numerous ways. A McDonald’s All-American who averaged over 30 points per game as a high school senior. But he is young and will get some quick and hard lessons on physicality as the Cats get into league play.
So as we get ready for the next few months of local frenetic cheering, bitching, questioning and the potential of raising another banner or two in the rafters of Rupp, let’s take a moment to remember--we are ranked somewhere between the 10th and 11th spot in the polls; we’ve been picked to win the SEC by some and to tie for third by others; we have the NCAA holding a player at bay and therefore, to some, a season--yes, remember, it’s only a game.
I just made myself laugh.