Subtext of Kentucky's Seventh Loss Different than Previous Six
One struggle of writing about the same basketball team every day is finding new things to say after events and non-events repeat themselves. Each of Kentucky’s six losses before Thursday have been framed in some kind of optimistic light. ‘We’re the youngest team in the country, and we’re learning,’ John Calipari will say invariably, lessons will be learned, and free-throw shooting and transition defense will be improved. The soundbites spin out at a regular 33 revolutions, but it’s hard to tell if the record is scratched or it’s supposed to sound that way. The difference is negligible.
The loss Thursday, the 71-67 overtime loss at Rupp Arena to Arkansas, felt different. Some degree of optimism lived in post-game interviews, but the aftertaste was strange. The game could have been won, because any game that doesn’t end in regulation is that way; neither tennis player gets blown out in a five-set match. But all the problems the Wildcats have had this season, and all the ones that presented themselves against Arkansas, seem too much to fix at this point. The team that Calipari (rightly) called the youngest in the country has had plenty of time to learn the things it needed to learn to do whatever it wanted to do (the goals have always been guarded, hopelessly trying to taper after 40-0 drowned everything else out in the preseason), and it has proven sluggish in changing its ways. It may ultimately prove unable to do so.
Willie Cauley-Stein reflected after the game, because he’s a reflective person. To him, this team is different than last year’s team, because this year’s team is playing from ahead in terms of NCAA tournament placement. Last year, Kentucky was not. The gun was at their head instead of this year, when it’s at, say, Arkansas’s. Cauley-Stein didn’t directly call out the stubborn laurel-resting of Kentucky’s freshmen, but he did say that the players that had been around prior to this season knew how to approach practices and games following discouraging efforts such as Thursday’s, and that he had faith in those players to approach the rest of the season the way they should. He said he’d “preach” for the rest of the team (the freshmen) to approach it that way but offered no assurance it would happen.
“The game against South Carolina, we’ll see then,” Cauley-Stein said. “We can come out and play out of our minds, and nobody’s ever going to remember we had this conversation. It simply is forgetting about this game and moving on, and that’s really all we can do at this point: Learn what we did wrong, take the positives of what we did and move on.”
Forgive me for reprising a conversation I had briefly forgotten had been had. The Wildcats have a truly talented and diverse roster, one that can easily distract from its previous misdeeds more easily than seems possible. But this conversation has been had before, and it would be silly to dismiss the possibility it won’t be had again. That’s what was printed several times earlier this season—that a big game turned things around, and this team is going to hop in the hot air balloon and find its way to the stars for which it was destined in October—and it doesn’t seem honest to print again. Kentucky will sprint and stammer through the rest of the season, because it doesn’t know any different.
Photo by James Pennington