It's a beautiful morning in the red-flecked northern precinct of the Commonwealth of Kentucky.
The locals, the Louisville Cardinals, are continuing their quiet surge back toward 1-seed and national title contention as most other teams backslide around them. The team they love to hate, and nearly everyone else they know loves to love, the Kentucky Wildcats are sliding toward NIT hell after another thorough road beating, this time at the hands of decidedly average Georgia.
Oh, and maybe for the first time, Louisville fans can Google "Kentucky basketball crap" as a legitimate news search. It doesn't get much more satisfying than that if you bleed red.
But as the increasingly dramatic quotes emanating from the Wildcats' camp started making the rounds on Twitter last night, I actually came away thinking is was one of the best moments of the season for the program. Maybe this morning will be looked back on fondly by Big Blue Nation, perhaps not at any time for the rest of this season, but very well at some point in the future.
The best leaders in any discipline control the message and get out ahead of the news cycle, making their own "news" instead. This is exactly what John Calipari, well regarded as a master propagandist, did Thursday night with his fan base (if Twitter is any sample) more or less tossing its hands up in surrender. He knew exactly what he was doing by telling the assembled media that he has "done a crap job" with his team this season. The quote immediately took the focus off a bad road performance and the bigger picture, and also off the players who have, at least in media and public perception, underachieved this season.
The second interesting part was the counterclaims from at least two of his players that this wasn't Calipari's fault. Both Archie Goodwin and Willie Cauley-Stein absolved their head coach of responsibility for this team's flaws and lack of cohesiveness this late in the season.
Then the finishing flourish was the players absolving the fans of any blame in this. Check this quote from Goodwin, as reported by the Louisville Courier-Journal:
“I don’t blame them. If we haven’t changed over the duration of the season, I don’t know what to say. It doesn’t look like anything’s going to change. We can still change, because we’ve showed games where we have played though throughout the whole game. Like, when we played Missouri, we played tough throughout the whole game and we got away with a win. But if we don’t do that, then I don’t blame those fans who may be down on us. We’re not giving them a reason to believe in us.”
So at the end of the evening, everyone had taken blame for everyone else, everyone had agreed the fans deserved better, and no one ended up taking a hit for what was a poor performance in a big spot.
Kentucky has not achieved at the level many expected of them this season, and maybe that's to Calipari's credit as well, because his track record in Lexington suggests that he can take any group of freshmen, sprinkle in one or two key non-frosh, and work deep NCAA tournament magic with them. The truth is, it's not easy rebooting every season. It helps when you have NBA lottery pick talent, but there's still a growth and development curve, still a chemistry mix that you have to season and re-season over the course of five months for the final dish to come out optimally. This one came out flat.
The sidebar to all of this is there's a pretty darn good reason Kentucky is flailing at the moment: It lost Nerlens Noel to injury. Again, this isn't a vintage Calipari Kentucky team, but the Wildcats had won seven of their last eight heading into the Florida game where Noel was injured. They were getting beaten there pre-injury, but so does everyone. Now look at what's happened since Noel, a high-volume shotblocker and elite rim protector, went out:
Tennessee: 1.37 points per possession. Vanderbilt 1.14 PPP. Missouri 1.08 PPP. Arkansas 1.06 PPP. Georgia 1.12 PPP. Sensing a pattern here? Since losing their defensive anchor, Kentucky's defense is getting lit up by everyone. This same UK team shackled both Tennessee and Vanderbilt earlier in the season. Georgia's offense had been a mess for most of the last month and a half. Tennessee has consistently been a very average offensive team in SEC play. Losing Noel when they did derailed the progress Kentucky was making. They probably weren't going to be any kind of national title threat, but they were moving comfortably toward making the bracket and status as "Team a 1-seed doesn't want in their 8/9 game." So, anyway, I think both Calipari and his players knew exactly what they were doing last night. #LaFamilia isn't just for when times are good. Cal and his players took bullets for each other last night and the message was unmistakable: This isn't acceptable, but we all have each others' backs. That may not allow them to salvage this season, but it's a very good marketing message for next year and beyond, when SEC foes once again won't be finding anything "crappy" about Kentucky.