This season of Kentucky Wildcats basketball has been maddening. From our first win against Maryland to our deflating losses to Duke, Notre Dame, Baylor, Louisville, Texas A&M, and Alabama, I dare say we have come full circle. And the main reasons we are in the position we are in now with a very winnable game against Auburn at 4 PM on Saturday and increasingly winnable game at Florida are: line up experimentation and balance.
Over the course of the season, Cal has made several starting line up adjustments that have us where we are. Kyle Wiltjer started out the season as a starter but it became clear, at least to me, that when he started he actually thought he was better than he is. He tried to play the same spot up game regardless of the situation because last year all he had to do was come in, hit some three pointers, and sit back down. He had no pressure. This season, more is expected and he didn’t expect that or at least didn’t know what it’d look like. Since bringing him off the bench and having starting Julius Mays instead, the results have been amazing.
Calipari has also been bringing Willie Cauley-Stein (WCS) off the bench after having a minor knee procedure recently and that has been an unexpected shot of energy to the team. You see, Calipari realized that he didn’t start the season off with the best starting line up and isn’t afraid to experiment. And perhaps his biggest experiment isn’t with Poythress or WCS or Wiltjer, but is with Jarrod Polson.
You saw flashes, literally a flash, of the smooth lefty cutting to the basket and getting fouled against South Carolina and sneaking in for a rebound amongst their bigs. I’d bet $1,000,000,000,000,000 that last year not a single member of the Big Blue Nation would have predicted Polson would have ANY impact on the game, let alone play important minutes. He’s among our best FT shooters and has proven himself to John Calipari. We trust that man, and now we need to trust that kid.
The other reason we have some chances to make a big splash in the SEC is because of balance.
Normally I HATE not having a superstar, go-to lights out scorer on the floor like Greg McDermott from Creighton, but when you have five guys averaging double figures (Goodwin, Poythress, Wiltjer, Noel, and Harrow), and another averaging just over 9 PPG (Mays), what that means is that we don’t have one deadly weapon, we have 6. I cannot overstate just how significant that is to our team. And I can’t emphasize more just how that is a great asset because over the past few games, we haven’t been saved by the same person, different people have stepped up and that is exactly what a mature team does.
Alex Poythress went for 20-12 against LSU; Wiltjer and Goodwin went for 26 and 24 respectively with Poythress adding 15 and Noel blocking 12 at Ole Miss; Nerlens Noel went for 19-14 and Mays for 19 as well to lead the OT Win at Texas A&M; and finally against South Carolina, Julius Mays again paced the Cats with 15 points. You see, when your team gets to the point where in four consecutive games, they have huge games from multiple different people, that’s when you become a legitimate threat. And they’re realizing that.
Granted, all this comes at a price and that cost is very high to the players because the cost is sacrifice of self. Of individual. They have to play to potential that hadn’t realized yet and in a system that fits the rest of the team. This is incredibly difficult for such young kids but they are begging to understand which makes them more scary.
We thought Ole Miss was their true NCAA Tourney litmus test but that comes at Florida and Mizzou. And after what Arkansas did to Florida and what Mizzou has struggled with this season, we have two very winnable games.
So listen, we have been spoiled beyond belief since Calipari agreed to coach these Cats some four seasons ago, and without a doubt last year’s team was among the most special I have ever seen, but please don’t let the maddening maturation of this team cause your hope to falter.
These boys are legit. Their record shows some blemishes and that makes us mad. And it’s even more maddening that their losses are primarily contributed to the same mistakes over and over, but do not think for one second that this team doesn’t have the potential to be as special as last year’s based solely on how much farther they’ve had to progress from last year’s.
Everyone has a new role. Everyone is learning their role. Everyone is embracing their role.
Embrace the madness people, for it could lead to #9.
On, On, U of K.