Monday, December 3, 2012

Will Calipari's System Be Questioned Again After Kentucky's Slow Start?

Is Kentucky's rough start leading to questions about John Calipari's freshman strategy? (

The system of coaching in college basketball changed after John Calipari and Kentucky won a national title last season. Or at least that's what we thought.

The idea of senior leadership and building players has been exchanged in Lexington for the year's best recruits (and maybe a few old sophomores and juniors). And before last season, the formula had proven to produce positive results, but never the ultimate result, which made it easier for people to dismiss Cal's methods.

Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and the rest of the young Wildcats proved what raw ability can do with a season of preparation. Naturally, the same was expected of this year's group. UK has highly touted freshmen in Nerlens Noel, Alex Poythress, Archie Goodwin and Willie Cauley-Stein, who have even higher expectations and more pressure on them than last year's squad.

Kentucky just lost its second game in a row and third of the season, which is more losses than the 2011-12 team had all season and keeping them barely above .500 at 4-3. The 2011-12 team's first loss was on Dec. 10 to Indiana and then it didn't lose again until the SEC Tournament Championship game against Vanderbilt.

Freshmen are supposed to go through growing pains, and that's exactly what is happening to UK this year. The talent is there, but adjusting to the pace of the college game and facing hostile environments, not to mention building team chemistry, takes time.

This season's start is making last year look more and more like a once-in-a-decade group, rather than the new norm in the college game. Who else has found a team, led by freshmen, that only lost one game in the regular season (on a buzzer-beater 3-pointer in a loud Assembly Hall), go perfect in conference play and win a national title, all while looking like it was the best team in the country? If there were growing pains, they didn't show up in the final score. The starters rarely looked like the stage was too big for them and the chemistry was as good as it could be for players working together for the first year.

It was just assumed that since Cal pulled this feat off last year, of course he could do it again this year. That's what the system entails; come in for one year, be one of the best teams in the country, compete for a title and then go make money in the NBA. The most difficult part is the recruiting, and Cal has succeeded with flying colors.

But now we're seeing why coaches and analysts preach senior leadership and chemistry. Trust me, any coach would take the most talented freshmen if he could get them, and Cal shouldn't be faulted for that. There just also happens to be a down side to the approach, and we're witnessing it as Kentucky will most likely drop out of the top 25 this week.

This doesn't mean Kentucky is going to flop or remain in neutral all season. They'll be a dangerous team to face in the NCAA Tournament because a lot can be learned in four months. This is more about how special last year's team was, and that Cal hasn't discovered a fool-proof secret to the game, he has just crafted another way compete.

Other teams still have a fighting chance and the college basketball apocalypse can be put on hold until the next super-frosh team makes all of us rethink our team's strategy.

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