March 20, 2013
There's a risk in doing things the way John Calipari has done things at Kentucky.
We hadn't seen that risk realized until this year.
Now we did.
Calipari has built his rosters on an annual purge-and-replenish process, but only half that equation is guaranteed: The purge. Once players are gone, off to the NBA, they're gone for good.
The replenishing part is the difficult one. Calipari's always been able to do it since arriving at Kentucky. Inherit a crippled roster from the previous coach? Bring in your own stars and make people dream with an Elite Eight finish. Five players drafted in the first round? Get a few more elite guys and make a Final Four run. Lose a star and two veterans from that team? Bring in one of the best recruiting classes of all time and win the championship. Lose six players from that team to the NBA?
Well, now we've seen where the risk comes in. This group was supposed to be like the others -- come in, brand new, and achieve success of its own. Maybe it wouldn't be to the soaring heights of the other years, but it would be success. Sweet 16, certainly. Elite Eight, possibly. Final Four, perhaps.
But it won't always work that way. It can't always work that way. Players, even ones of the caliber that Calipari attracts to Lexington, will occasionally underwhelm.
"The whole thing here, too, becomes: You lose your whole team (to the NBA) and have a great (recruiting) class but they're not quite to the (same level)," Calipari said a few weeks ago, as he began to open up about the fact that what happened this year did not work. "You know what I'm saying? That's the risk you take. That's part of the deal here."
Sometimes, you'll miss out on one guy and there are no readily available ways to find a substitute. Sometimes, the players you have aren't quite the studs expected them to be. Sometimes, a deficiency you thought could be patched up only rips open wider.
"If you have three or four injuries or this or that happens, (or) a couple guys just don't have the mental makeup for this -- even though you've talked about it; 'This isn't for everybody,' (and) 'Can't hide you,' all the things that I've said for four years -- you get exposed here," Calipari said. "Sometimes it happens."
We're seeing that risk borne out with this team. We're seeing both sides of the Calipari Equation. His method of assembling as much talent as possible and getting it to coalesce into brilliance can and will work.
But now we're seeing the other side, where his method leaves a team vulnerable to a season that can crumble if one or two particulars don't go according to plan.
Kentucky played 33 games this season. Fifteen of those came with at least one of their top six rotation players missing. Ryan Harrow missed games 2-5. Willie Cauley-Stein missed games 17-20. Nerlens Noel missed games 25-31. (And that doesn't include games where those players were clearly operating at less than 100 percent, like Harrow against Maryland/Notre Dame/Baylor, Cauley-Stein's four-minute game at Texas A&M, and the shortened Florida game.)
Playing almost half the season at less than full strength, having to make adjustments on the fly on top of the adjustments you'll need to naturally make with a team that inexperienced, is a considerable obstacle.
And it's okay that, sometimes, it doesn't work. It was easy to think that Calipari's method of regenerating his roster was fail-proof, that it was an automatic guarantee of success. His first three years gave no indication that there could be a flip side.
There is. It's a pretty bad one, too, the kind that could cause UK to miss the NCAA tournament for just the second time in 22 years. So maybe Calipari's way is less hit-or-hit and more mostly-hit-and-occasionally-miss. That's not such a bad thing.
He realizes the shortcomings of this roster. Perhaps he even bought into his own aura of invincibility at Kentucky, that it really would work out every time so long as three or four elite guys came to Lexington in any given year. Before this year was even over, he was thinking about precautions to guard against another failure like this year.
He realized the importance of having players like Patrick Patterson, DeAndre Liggins and Darius Miller. He just didn't realize that he had to bring them in for himself now that the holdovers from Billy Gillispie were gone. Now he does. He'll be changing his own equation so that a season like this never happens again. And it must be noted, Calipari wasn't even through a whole four-year cycle at Kentucky before this season. He's still figuring this out, still trying to find that perfect balance between short-term and long-term building.
And you think about how thin the margin is, how differently (good and bad) any of the last three seasons could have gone had one thing broke the other way. It's illustrated by the small variations that would have made a huge impact on this year: What if Nerlens Noel picked Georgetown, as many thought? This season would be a colossal failure. What if Shabazz Muhammad had picked Kentucky? Well -- no NIT, in all likelihood.
"It's a learning experience for me," he said last week. "It's going to make me a better coach for next year's team. Some of the stuff (that) went on won't go on next year, holding the bar to a higher standard, not accepting we'll have enough guys. The bench is going to be my best friend. All of those kind of things that will come back into play."
It will hit again, soon.