ATLANTA -- The only sign of age on Kentucky’s basketball team is Nerlens Noel’s hi-top fade, straight outta old-school rap, a time well before his parents got together and decided to someday make John Calipari a smarter coach.
That’s life in Calipariland. Every fall, the Cats start over. They roll out a team filled with freshmen who’ll look raw at first but will eventually figure it out in time to make a strong NCAA tournament run ... and leave for the pros. They’re less a college basketball team than an NBA feeder program, which means that any player who’s still around as a junior will make a fine accountant someday.
Noel and Alex Poythress and the other UK freshmen don’t know how to play college ball yet. That was apparent in Kentucky’s loss to Duke at the Georgia Dome on Tuesday night. That said, Noel and Poythress and the others will put up a strong defense of the Wildcats’ national championship by spring. That also was evident against the Blue Devils. If these teams meet in the tourney, who you got? The ready-made Devils? Or the Cats with the hi-top ceiling?
They might be the youngest and weakest freshmen in the Calipari era. Still, give me the team with Noel, who may be a walking recruiting violation but is the quickest 6-foot-10 player in the country (7-1 with the fro). Give me the team with Poythress, a tremendous leaper who’ll be dangerous in the post once he learns how to stay there. Give me transfer sophomore Ryan Harrow, who missed the Duke game because of the flu, a small but fluid point guard who can stabilize a young team. Yes, give me Kentucky because the Wildcats usually manage to age gracefully and quickly, to the delight of their bloodthirsty legion of fans and NBA lottery teams everywhere.
“They don’t know what they’re doing out there, but they’re freshmen,” said Calipari. “This is how it is right now.”
Yes. Right now.
In their first two games, the Wildcats escaped by three points over Maryland before crumbling in the clutch against an older and wiser Duke team. This must be November, which means the best team on campus is the Kentucky football team. Remember, Calipari is putting five and six players together who just met. Or, as he said: “They were in Vegas playing AAU ball four months ago.”
If you’re stuck in the prehistoric ’80s then this must be very annoying, this cycle of rolling out a fresh Kentucky team every year. Yes, agreed, somewhere in the Kentucky one-and-done college basketball world, where players (rightfully) take advantage of their skills and play for money, something is sacrificed. The campus never gets the chance to know its teenaged heroes very well or for very long. The players, at least the good ones, are Wildcats one day, Bobcats (Charlotte) the next. Actually, any player who’s a lock for the draft lottery doesn’t even need to attend classes in the second semester. By the time he’s ruled ineligible to compete, the NCAA tournament is over, and so is his college “career.”
Kentucky made this deal with the devil when Calipari was hired three years ago. Nothing wrong with that, mind you. A coach like Calipari is only at Kentucky to win. That’s it. As long as he steers clear of the NCAA police, which he has so far, it’s all good. As long as he goes deep into the tournament, he can continue to chase players like Noel, who had more red flags following him out of high school than a Russian parade.
There are undoubtedly some coaches, swayed by professional jealousy rather than proof, who are convinced that not all is pure at Kentucky. It’s true that Calipari has had successful seasons wiped out at UMass and Memphis, but he’s covered in non-stick coating and right now runs a program that will only keep attracting McDonald’s All-Americans every year. Which means that the Wildcats will contend every year.
Kentucky became the first school to go 1-2 in the NBA draft when Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist one-and-done’d from last year’s championship team, and someday the Wildcats might repeat that trick. Noel is already projected as a lottery pick, and depending on how things develop in the next few months, he’ll probably have company.
The goal, then, is for Calipari to whip them into a smooth unit in five months, and hope they’re mature enough to navigate the minefield known as the NCAA tournament. Right now, they’re not. They sweated out the Maryland win. They couldn’t take advantage of Duke when Mason Plumlee got into foul trouble and had to sit several minutes in a tight game. The older Blue Devils actually upped the lead and finished the job.
“We were composed,” said Duke guard Seth Curry, a senior who smoked the Cats for 23 points. “We’d been in that situation before.”
Tuesday’s big night of basketball at the Georgia Dome, the site of the Final Four, also had Michigan State and Kansas. Any one of those four teams can return to Atlanta in April and celebrate. College basketball is so unpredictable in the early going, when teams are still trying to pass pop quizzes, none more than another Kentucky team filled with freshmen.
“It’s all new to this team,” said Calipari. “What they don’t understand is how hard you have to play and how a minute and a half can cost you the game. We’re a November team right now. We don’t play hard enough yet. We don’t go after every rebound yet. We don’t know how to finish games yet. It’s just going to take time.”
Time is the one luxury the Wildcats never seem to have in surplus. Calipari can recruit the quick guards, the punishing power forwards and intriguing centers with haircuts from the ’80s. He just can’t get them to stay very long.
Because at Kentucky, there’s always a push: for championships, for the NBA draft, for the reset button.