Kentucky Wildcats head basketball coach John Calipari took an unconventional approach to preaching team unity Tuesday. Calipari thought his team could benefit from a break from all the recent engulfing stress, so he decided to take them back to high school gym class with an old-fashioned game of dodgeball. The idea, though a bit cliché, was to remind his team to have fun, and work cohesively.
It remains unclear whether the message was received; Kentucky did pick up a 74-70 victory over Vanderbilt on Wednesday, but scraping by a team just 4-9 in SEC play this season tends to leave much to be desired. Still, Calipari’s last resort may end up being just what the doctor ordered for Kentucky, after taking yet another of what seems to have been a multitude plunges into the doldrums in this rollercoaster season.
What was set to be a prime time game for the Wildcats against Florida, ended up being nothing but a nightmare. In an instant, 7-foot Nerlens Noel, who was only beginning to blossom as a star this season, was sent to the floor, writhing in pain and clutching his knee. It was a horrific moment, followed by even more devastating news. Kentucky would have to play the remainder of the season without Noel, who had suffered an ACL tear.
It seemed Kentucky was destined for a few more losses following such tragic events, but no one expected what ensued. In their following game against a mediocre Tennessee squad, the Wildcats were absolutely hammered, losing 88-58 and shooting just 35.8% from the field. Archie Goodwin and Kyle Wiltjer combined to go 7-24, as a team, Kentucky committed 15 miscues and allowed the Vols to shoot 58%. Of their eight losses on the season, none were more embarrassing.
Oh and not to mention, their quote-unquote signature win against Ole Miss is starting to hold less weight, as the Rebels are beginning to take a dive themselves, so Kentucky is basically back to zero as far as marquee victories are concerned.
So, after basically hitting rock bottom, where does Kentucky go from here? Is there still hope for their season? Of course there is. Noel might be done for the year, but the Wildcats are still very much alive. In a season where upsets have been rampant, and the madness has arrived a little ahead of schedule, their resume is still good enough to be a fringe tournament team, if not in the dance. They just need to make a few adjustments to secure their spot.
Calipari’s approach was brilliant, team unity is one of the many missing ingredients holding the Wildcats from harnessing their potential. What better way to get a group of kids to bond than a game of dodgeball? However, it addresses only one of the issues, and the concerns extend much further than simply lack of togetherness.
What Kentucky needs is, well a lot of things, but a leader—someone to step up and take control in late-game situations and to be a voice of reason amongst the noise. Noel filled that role, but now he’s out and there is only so much leading he can do from the sideline. If Kentucky is going to pull it together, someone is going to have to fill that void.
Whether it is veteran Julius Mays who becomes a savvy leader, or Kyle Wiltjer who tasted success last season in a limited role with Anthony Davis & co, someone must lead this team out of the cellars. Maybe it will follow tradition and end up being a freshman. Willie Cauley-Stein and Archie Goodwin both responded well to Calipari’s message combining for 36 points on 15-24 shooting and 13 rebounds in the win over Vanderbilt. Could a leader be born of that duo?
It’s plausible, and with Noel out Cauley-Stein will see a massive increase in playing time. Goodwin, on the other hand was dubbed as a lottery pick and has the explosiveness to create scoring opportunities for himself, which would open things up for his teammates.
Defense will also be an issue. Without Noel in the middle to block every other shot attempt, Kentucky is going to have to work together and pressure its opponents into turnovers and bad shots. Cauley-Stein along with Alex Poythress and Wiltjer will need to protect the paint in his absence, because teams will recognize it as a weak area. Already this weakness has been exploited, even in the Vanderbilt game where the Commodores shot 3% above their average and dropped 70 points on a flustered Wildcat defense.
Another worry has been the lackluster play at point guard so far this season. Even Ryan Harrow showed a glimmer of hope in the Vanderbilt game though, going 6-for-9 for 12 points and dishing four assists, and zero turnovers. Realize though that all of this hope comes from one game—that Kentucky barely won at that. To really prove something, Kentucky needs consistency. If they begin to do the aforementioned on a game-to-game basis, their ceiling is high.
However, the window is closing.
We continue to talk about Kentucky as a team with potential, but it seems that, this season, it really isn’t coming to fruition. Even when they start to show a hint of progress, they catch an unlucky break. In order to salvage their season, Kentucky must act swiftly. Dodgeball was a good start. It won’t be easy but add in a leader, some defense, and consistent play from Harrow, and the Wildcats will be alright.
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