Sports

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.

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