Saturday, January 30, 2010

Kentucky Basketball: Fried Chickens Are Gone, Wildcats Elite Once Again

Well, that confirms it. There’s much we know about Kentucky in a season when elite toughness has returned, banishing all the burdens.

Before John Calipari made his presence felt in Lexington, the Wildcats were burning in a hot bucket, battered in the fried grease. They were a Kentucky Fried Calamity, but with all the drastic transitions following the woeful era of Billy Gillespie, the Bluegrass State wasn't denigrated. Despite years of stains to a premier program, a tattered Kentucky wasn’t even discussed.

But the arrogance of one demanding program posed turbulence for the Wildcats. That, indeed, was an unfamiliar scene for a school known for reaching and finishing atop the polls and contending for the Final Four.

The Wildcats rarely take an early exit amid a tourney, where Cinderella’s are born and fools dominate, busting brackets and upsetting gamblers. Suddenly, the top-ranked team in the nation doesn’t have to worry about severely disappointing a state which truly admires college hoops.

Quite fittingly, the Wildcats are the best team in the nation—the most dangerous. It’s easy to sit back and embrace the high intensity and action of Kentucky, grasping our consciousness. With all the star power and a well-respected coach, the Wildcats aren’t a program to laugh at anymore.

But this comes as no surprise, at least it shouldn’t.

If you glance at Calipari’s striking resume, you’ll notice he has a history of revitalizing programs.

He cultivated three programs despite the problematic sandals that may have bruised credibility. He has helped mold former superstars into not only NBA attractions, but matured men.

His philosophy is manipulating Kentucky’s flourishing stars, such as the freshman sensation John Wall, a lighting fast point guard.

He’s truly a special talent, blessed to be coached by Calipari. Look at how much of an impact Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans are having on the NBA level, renovating impoverished franchises with their dynamic contributions.

But there isn’t a point guard more impressive than Wall. Shining more quickly than the typical freshman, it seems as if he has been dazzling on the collegiate level for a long time. He’s NBA-ready and could translate his dominance on the next level. There’s no point guard as fast in the transition game or directly to the bucket.

There’s no player as streaky of a shooter as Wall. Although he settled for 13 points on 4 for 12 shooting and nine assist in a late Saturday afternoon game against Vanderbilt, he’ll be the No. 1 pick in the next NBA draft.

It’s hard to argue that.

What we are seeing is Calipari utilize a youthful team as he did well at UMass and Memphis, where he auspiciously led the Tigers to prestigious heights in the NCAA tourney.

He has brought a similar method to Kentucky, a well-balanced team that doesn’t need to rely strictly on spectacular performances from Wall. It’s not a one-man show. The Wildcats are seeing the high-minded freshman DeMarcus Cousins mature and accelerate efficiently, becoming the team’s second option.

They are starting to find their form, strengthening to remain No. 1 in the nation.

The Wildcats are winning most of their games and entered today’s contest with a mentality that capturing a win was top priority. Sure enough, they did.

They recovered from an upset loss to South Carolina, where hearts were shattered late in the week as a magical winning streak was snapped. But there are no worries, after bouncing back with an 85-72 win over Vanderbilt. In front of an engaged Kentucky crowd, a blissful fan base saw the same Wildcats they had grown accustomed to in prior weeks.

More than anything, they saw a much-improved Cousins bully the Commodores in the interior. He ruled the boards and posted his 12th double-double with 21 points and 10 rebounds during a physical outing.

Whistles were blown often in a game that featured 58 fouls, acknowledging the physical contact. The aggressive play is how the Wildcats have been able to pummel opponents all season.

There’s also no place like home and they are unbeaten on their own hardwood. Kentucky is 13-0 at home, responding to Calipari’s coaching demands.

Knowing Calipari, the loss suffered on Tuesday was considered a reality check. If so, it worked in their favor, able to bounce back with a crucial win against Vanderbilt.

Some teams live and die by the three pointers. One of those teams happen to be Kentucky, who made 12 of 23 three-pointers and held a 19-point lead early.

The Commodores were outrebounded 41-22 and took advantage on second-chance points by scoring 20.

Wall gave rise to concern about his ball-handling when he posted seven turnovers.

Another problem is the Wildcats have a tendency of building double-digit leads, but losing a majority of them because of complacency. Calipari is always insisting that his team play consistent throughout the entire game, a weakness Kentucky must improve upon if expecting to drive full force to the Final Four.

Given Calipari’s history, the Wildcats are Final Four destined.

They are a balanced team. Patrick Patterson, who had four rebounds and 12 points, is a factor. Eventually, Eric Bledsoe may be a key piece to their chase of the national championship as he was on Saturday, finishing with 13 points and seven rebounds.

Though they are the holders of the most wins in the history men’s basketball and the most likable program, the Wildcats haven’t won a national title since 1998, under coach Tubby Smith.

Meanwhile, Calipari has never won a national title.

But in a season where he sparked their rebirth, he may lead them back to the top. It’s still a bit early to call him the next Adolph Rupp, but it isn’t early to make it known that he’s the best head coach since Smith departed accepting the Minnesota job—he was tired of all the shabby seasons.

Late into the season, the least concern is a letdown. This is believed to be a year Kentucky athletics come back to life, absorbing our attention in April.

Unless a strange drought strangleholds a reproductive program, Kentucky isn’t going anywhere. If Calipari is around, life is fine. If he’s around, winning a national title could be impending.