Sports Columns

March 13, 2014

Tom Lindley: It takes more than talent to make a great team

The preseason guides for men’s college basketball proclaimed this as the year of the Kentucky Wildcats. No superlatives were spared.

Kentucky John Calipari put together the greatest collection of freshman recruits ever assembled. His team — already a perennial Southeastern Conference and national power — was anointed No. 1 before five of the team’s eight McDonald’s All-Americans had even played a college game.

The Wildcats appeared to be so dominant that there was casual talk of an undefeated season, a pursuit of perfection in the Bluegrass State. Few dissenting opinions were offered. Maybe Kentucky would lose a game or two, but a trip to the Final Four — and a ninth national championship — were just months away.

When the season began, the reviews weren’t as glowing. Something wasn’t clicking.

Four months later, Kentucky is far removed from No. 1. In fact, the Wildcats didn't even make the latest Top 25 poll from The Associated Press. This team has had its moments, but no one predicted a 22-9 regular season, much less a 12-6 record in conference play.

Some analysts who talked about perfection during the preseason are at a loss to explain what happened. Individually, the players may well be blue-chippers. Collectively, the harmony is missing.

Basketball always has been a team game, though this group has had a difficult time accepting that. It was built around a collection of high school stars whose reputations were built to earn lucrative NBA contracts, not necessarily NCAA championships.

Successful college teams have strong guard play. The backcourt players dominate — scoring from all points on the floor or dishing to other players who are breaking to the basket. Andrew and Aaron Harrison — two imposing 6-foot-5 guards — have shown moments of star power, but they haven’t dominated. Their shooting has been suspect.

Center Julius Randle has solidified himself as a one-and-done draft selection. But outside scorer James Young and upfront man Dakari Johnson have had ups and downs.

You expect that from freshmen. The season is long, the pressure of playing in a major conference is high, and the learning curve is steep. Those factors are more intense at Kentucky, where Calipari opined earlier this season that the Wildcats were “the most overanalyzed team I’ve ever seen in the history of the game. At any level. In any sport.”

That pressure applies to the $5 million-a-year coach, too, who has shown signs of stress. He’s received technical fouls, been tossed from a game and missed or cut short press conferences.

The failure of this Kentucky team is not that the freshmen have underperformed, but rather they have failed to meet ultra-high expectations. Even as Calipari has exploited the one-and-done approach, his achievements — a national championship in 2012, which followed a Final Four appearance the previous year — came with the help of some seasoned upperclassmen.

This group, so far, has struggled to grasp the importance of battling through adversity and playing a full 40 minutes. They have not learned to play together, a concept alien to many players who are taught that their worth is measured in individual scoring averages, not team victories.

Once asked what he looked for in a recruit, a former coach said if he wanted to find the best players in town, all he had to do was stop by the barbershop and ask the people there. But, he explained, the people at the barbershop couldn’t tell him who would get better, who could play without the ball or who could step up in big games in a packed gym. That’s what a coach must figure out.

Calipari has revolutionized college basketball with a unique approach to recruiting. Kentucky's season, however, has demonstrated that commitment, chemistry and cohesion are also key parts of developing a winning team.

Tom Lindley is a sports columnist for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. You can write to him at tlindley@cnhi.com.

1
Text Only
Sports Columns
  • 7on7 day 2 '14 17 mlh.jpg Devin Golden: Friday signals gridiron days’ official start

    Seven-on-seven football was a good placeholder, but it’s time to begin talking about the real thing.

    July 21, 2014 1 Photo

  • Loran Smith: Golf now in era of McIlroy after Open

    Royal & Ancient officials, under whose auspices the Open championship is conducted each year, were blessed with a sun-kissed start of the final round of the 143rd playing of this historic event.

    July 21, 2014

  • Loran Smith: McIlroy at his peak at Hoylake

    HOYLAKE, England — It’s the setting which enraptures those who appreciate the things that accompany a championship, The British refuse to let a downpour or two, intermittent and inconvenient, to make them fret.

    July 20, 2014

  • Loran Smith: Change is needed for major titles

    HOYLAKE, England — This is a good time to be Bubba Watson — long off the tee which brings golf aficionados through the gates, two Masters titles which puts him in the pantheon of the greats at Augusta, deal-makers hovering about, more perks than a palace prince, exempt status to the end of the decade and a cash flow that resembles a raging river.

    July 19, 2014

  • Loran Smith: Harman is living his childhood golf dream

    HOYLAKE, England — One thing about golf that has remained constant since Young Tom Morris won his fourth Open in a row in 1872 — when Ulysses Grant was president of the United States and Brigham Young was arrested for bigamy (he had 25 wives) — is that a little man can play the game.
    Football players are becoming bigger — often illegally — and basketball players are growing taller, but a golfer can excel at any dimension if he hones his skills enough to get the ball in the hole in the fewest strokes. Golf is not a behemoth sport; there are no concussions, no strikeouts and no fistfights. Let the game prosper.

    July 18, 2014

  • Loran Smith: Brits know how to hold classy affairs

    HOYLAKE, England — Summertime is a royal time for the British, who have more sporting options in a six-week period than some societies have in a lifetime.
    If you think the U.S. is keen on sport — with the NBA finals lasting into June and baseball and golf dominating the scene — consider what takes place in the land of our forebears. Wimbledon gets underway the last week in June for a fortnight of resonating excitement. Wimbledon is like Augusta National or Churchill Downs — a memorable experience regardless of who walks away with first prize.

    July 15, 2014

  • A Look Ahead: State golf coming to Nob North

    My history as a golfer can be summed up with some well-known words from 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes — “nasty, brutish and short.”

    July 14, 2014

  • CharlesTodd.jpg Devin Golden: Todd leaving a legacy of success

    To many, Charles Todd is known as “coach Todd.” Some of the divers, swimmers and water polo players who have been on his teams in the Dalton area over the years shorten that to simply “coach.”

    July 11, 2014 1 Photo

  • Larry Case: Take a shot at improving your aim before you hunt

    Do you consider yourself an accomplished marksman with a shotgun? Are you satisfied with your shooting in the bird field or on the clay target range?

    July 11, 2014

  • Jamie Jones: What does Sting's number mean?

    Here are the notes and news items from the week in pro wrestling: Sting has left TNA. But will he resurface in WWE?

    July 11, 2014