Wiedmer: UK not only dream team struggling

Wiedmer: UK not only dream team struggling

March 10th, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Back on Nov. 12 of last year inside Chicago's United Center, then No. 2 Michigan State outlasted then No. 1 Kentucky 78-74, prompting the following quote from losing coach John Calipari:

"You got guys crying in [the UK locker room], which is a good thing. I want it to hurt like that. If you don't do this together, you won't win. You'll never be a special team."

It's safe to say that no one cheering for either the Spartans or Cal's Comatose Cats feels very special right now. When the new Associated Press poll is released today, both MSU and Big Blue should be outside the Top 25 for the first time all year, given their road losses this past weekend at unranked Ohio State and top-ranked Florida, respectively.

But as schools such as Iowa State, Oregon and Tennessee appear to be surging after lackluster Januarys, what are we to make of the four schools who gathered in the United Center 118 days ago for the State Farm Champions Classic -- Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan State? How do four traditional powerhouses begin the season ranked in the top five but now find only Duke with less than eight losses?

Is there a common thread? A dangerous trend to avoid? Just one of those years?

Or is this the foreseeable future of college basketball, one filled with more surprises than sure things?

It could be argued that surprises aren't just happening in college hoops, which has had its grandest party -- the Final Four -- crashed by such unexpected guests as Butler (2010), Butler and VCU (2011) and Wichita State (2013) in recent years. For those of you whose passion runs more toward college football, it's not unlike Auburn (2010 and 2013) and Notre Dame (2012) coming out of nowhere to reach those BCS title games.

For the casual fan -- if such a thing still hopefully exists since it means there are still a few folks living healthy, balanced lives -- that unpredictability is a good thing. For football's Bama backers and college hoops' Kentucky Crazies it's an unsettling truth to realize that the best-laid plans of $5 million coaches sometimes go astray.

It's easy to pile on Caliari's one-and-done recruiting model after preseason talk of a 40-0 championship run has epically collapsed into a 22-9 campaign that might deliver a second straight NIT bid had UK not piled up so many respectable wins and close losses early on. And just to be safe, the Big Blew might want to win at least one SEC Tournament game this week inside the Georgia Dome, since a slew of unknowns capturing conference tournaments could put anyone worse than a No. 7 seed on the bubble.

Especially since UK still doesn't look like its players are in this thing together, but rather more than ready to go their separate ways as soon as possible, either to the NBA, the D League, another program or back to the gym to grow up and possibly begin to grow together over the summer.

It is also worth noting that for all the talk that Cal has done this before, he hasn't. None of his previous teams at Memphis or Kentucky was without notable upperclass leadership, regardless of the high profile of his freshmen. His 2008 Final Four team at Memphis that was led by rookie guard Derrick Rose was nevertheless anchored by veterans Chris Douglas-Roberts and Joey Dorsey. His first UK team in 2010 may have been highlighted by John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, but it also featured junior forward Patrick Patterson. His next two Wildcat teams -- both of whom went to the Final Four -- were basically a 50-50 mix of veterans and newcomers.

Then there's this bunch, which has never started fewer than four freshman, has occasionally started five and still plays as if an assist is something a doctor removes.

Yet if it's fair to criticize Cal, should Kansas coach Bill Self not be similarly scrutinized? After all, he's already lost eight games with a team that features two of the three players expected to go 1-2-3 in the 2014 NBA Draft, assuming Jayhawk freshmen Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid are both one-and-done. Beyond that, he has a junior point guard in Naadir Tharpe, an all-conference level power forward in sophomore Perry Ellis and super sixth man on his interior front line in senior transfer Tarik Black, a former star for Memphis.

Throw in fellow fab freshman Wayne Selden and you could make a case that Self's Jayhawks -- despite their 10th straight Big 12 regular-season crown -- have been almost as suspect in losing eight times in 31 games as Cal's Cats have in dropping 9 of 31.

But you can't blame youth on Michigan State's eight defeats. Injuries have played a role. As has a surprisingly salty Big 10. Still, with two seniors, two juniors and three sophomores among his first seven, Spartans coach Tom Izzo has lost more than he ever dreamed with this team heading into March Madness.

The reality is -- as the Selection Committee loves to inform us every Selection Sunday -- every season is different. Chemistry plays a role. And injuries. And sometimes just plain luck, both good and bad.

For instance, for all the grief that UT coach Cuonzo Martin has endured this winter, had Texas A&M's Antwan Space not hit two of the 11 3-pointers he's made all season at the horn, the Vols would have been the outright runner-ups of the SEC rather than finishing fourth. And with 22 wins instead of 20 there would be no worries about UT making the field.

We forget they're still kids. Tall kids, talented kids, but still kids, which means they don't always listen or perform as we think they should.

But after four months of pretty exciting hoops, at least one of them -- Kentucky freshman Julius Randle -- seems to finally understand the urgency of a swiftly shrinking season.

After the Cats' 19-point loss at Florida on Saturday, Randle said, "We've got to get this thing going. There comes a point when you've got to put this [belief] into action."

If there's any good news for Kentucky it's this: The last two schools to start No. 1 and fall out of the top 25 -- UCLA in 1966 and Indiana in 1980 -- won it all the following year.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com