Monday, February 26, 2007

On Why I Want Chuck Hayes Back

This year's UK basketball team is ruining March for me. I usually relish the thought of watching Selection Sunday, eagerly awaiting the announcement of the seeds and brackets, but the past two years have brought me no such satisfaction. Just knowing that my team will most likely be making an early exit is quite disheartening these days. I would like to think that may be there will be some magic turnaround, but that seems unlikely. It has actually gotten to the point where I enjoy listening to disgruntled fans on post-game call-in shows after a loss more than actually watching the game. There is something wrong with that, and that is why I have to say something.

I don't feel the need to complain about this team...I probably do enough of that already. Instead, I have decided to offer my own analysis of why this team (and this program) has become what it is. It's easy to blame the players. It's easier to blame the coach. But the best way to fix the problem is to look at the whole.

Let's start with the players. The common belief is that this team lacks the talent that it once had. I agree. We need an athletic power forward. We need a reliable point guard. We need more athleticism as a whole. Yet I think the talent argument is a bit overrated. There is talent on this team. Morris has talent. Crawford has talent. Meeks has talent. Even Bradley has talent. Sure, these guys are no Greg Oden or Kevin Durant, but that is beside the point. I can live without the one-year superstars that merely use college as their springboard to the NBA. What I want is a team, and this is not what we have. And this is why I have to place much of the blame on the players.

There is one play from this past Sunday's Vanderbilt game that sums up my point here. About midway through the second half, Joe Crawford came up with a loose ball near the sideline at center court. At the same time, freshman Jodie Meeks came streaking towards the basket, wide open for a layup with no one within 20 feet of him. Joe looks up, but decides not to pass the ball for the easy bucket. Instead, he raced towards the basket for a dunk, narrowly beating a Vandy defender to the hole.

Perhaps Joe didn't see Jodie. But I think he was more concerned about his stat sheet than getting the easy points. Why else would he not have passed the ball? Problem 1: THE PLAYER EGO. We saw it last year when Morris entered the draft. We've seen it a half dozen times this year when Bradley tries to be the late game hero and instead turns the ball over. And how many times has Crawford taken the shot when he should have made the extra pass?

Teams who play as teams win games. Take the 2002-2003 team for example. That team was not extremely talented. In fact, the talent was mediocre. Cliff Hawkins, Gerald Fitch, Chuck Hayes, Keith Bogans. These guys were role players. They did their jobs without worrying about their PPG average. They bought into the team concept, as well as Tubby's system.

This ego problem further manifests itself in UK's lack of a "go-to guy". Morris is about the closest thing we have to that. Unfortunately, we have others that want to be that guy. How many times has Ramel Bradley tried to make a game-winning shot in the last seconds instead of trying to find the open man? How many times has Joe Crawford lowered his head and driven to the basket when other guys were open? The problem is that no one on this team knows their role.

I'm not hating on any of the aforementioned players. I have seen them play as good as most players in the country when they play within the roles that the system demands. Bradley is a great defender and was a spark coming off the bench his first two years. But I think the starting role has gone to his head a bit. At the beginning of the season he called this "his team". That's fine, I have no problem with that. But that makes you responsible for what happened on Sunday. Or what happened when you let Georgia off the hook. Or when you had Florida beat but couldn't hit a single three point shot to save your own life. Crawford is a good shooter and can get to the basket. But his selfishness results in bad decisions. It results in ignoring open teammates. It results in bad shots. It results in pouting when those shots don't go in.

So self seems to be tripping this team up. But that is not the only problem. PROBLEM 2: THE LACK OF INTENSITY. This team is just lazy sometimes. I see standing around on offense. I see lack of hustle in transition. These are fundamentals folks. It is one thing to play bad, but it is absolutely unacceptable for this team not to play hard for 40 (and I mean 40) minutes of every game. Morris seems to be the main culprit here. It seems that when he doesn't get the ball early, he just gives up on both offense and defense. That is inexcusable. Bradley loses focus towards the end of game, thus the flurry of turnovers we see with 2 minutes left night in and night out. That is inexcusable.

But not all the blame can be placed on the players. The coach is responsible as well. Don't get me wrong, I think Tubby is a good coach. He has proven that his system works. But I do have two criticisms of the man, two problems that seem to have gotten worse this year.

Problem 3: THE BAD RECRUITING. This is no secret, Tubby's recruiting has been borderline pathetic in certain years. This years senior class is a prime example. We have Sheray Thomas, Bobby Perry, and Lukasz Orbzut. Both Thomas and Perry were 3-star players coming out of high school, Woo was a two-star recruit. All have contributed very little to the program in their four years at UK. All are unathletic for their positions. Tubby missed the ball on these guys.

Tubby likes "projects": guys he can build up over time. Unfortunately none of these projects panned out. This is Kentucky, not Georgia. We should be aiming for the best players, the ones that combine talent with a team mentality. These players are tough to find, but that is what makes a good coach.

I'm not saying that I want every Kevin Durant or Greg Oden playing at UK. But there are excellent players who are willing to stay 3 or 4 years who aren't among the nation's top 25 recruits. Look at Florida for example. Of the starting 5, there are NO 5-star players. Brewer, Noah, and Horford were all 4-star players. Green and Humphrey were 3-star players. But the difference between them and UK is that they play as a team. Each player knows their role and uses their talent to execute their role to the best of their ability.

I have to defend Tubby for a minute because some unexpected things came about 2 years ago. Last year Morris ignorantly left early for the NBA. No one expected that. Even more unexpected was Azibuike's departure to the NBA, which many suspect was related to his father being put in jail. Tubby expected Kelenna and Randolph both last year. He got neither untill Morris was reinstated. That's about 25 PPG gone, with no one to replace them. It's a wonder we won as many games as we did. However, Tubby should be ready for these things. He needs to have the talent to replace these guys year in and year out. There is no reason why there should be years where Bobby Perry is our most significant recruit.

But enough about the recruiting. PROBLEM 4: THE STUBBORN COACH. Tubby seems to never give up on some players (i.e. Sheray Thomas) and to never give some players a chance (i.e. Perry Stevenson). It boggles my mind why Sheray plays as much as he does. I ask, what more does he bring to the table than Stevenson? Sure, Stevenson makes mistakes. And he is no superstar by any stretch of the imagination. But look at it this way: Sheray makes the same amount of mistakes (if not more), while being less athletic and contributing less as Stevenson. At what point do you go with the younger guy?

Perhaps even more frustrating is how Tubby will slow the game down when UK has a decent lead. This contributes to the players not playing as hard towards the end of the game. How many games might the Cats have won this year had they not let off the gas peddle when they had a comfortable lead?

So should Barnhart fire Tubby? There are two possibilities here. If Tubby goes, you most likely lose high profile recruiting target Patrick Patterson. Patterson is a must-have for UK next year. But Patterson has openly said that Tubby is a big part of his interest in UK, and if Tubby goes I think Patterson looks elsewhere. Plus UK could lose a commitment they already have from power forward A.J. Stewart, an athletic player with potential, as well as one of the top point guards in Jai Lucas who seems to want to commit to Tubby soon. However, bringing in a new coach may be able to attract some players who have committed to other programs, and UK may end up with a better class even without Lucas, Patterson, and Stewart.

But say Barnhart gives Tubby another chance. The chances seem likely that Patterson will commit to UK seeing as how both Florida and Duke (his other two schools of interest) have already signed big-time power forwards. Patterson will probably sit his freshman year at either of those schools, but by coming to UK it is all but certain that he will play immediately. And this year's freshman are promising as well. Meeks reminds me of Chuck Hayes in his toughness and leadership. Jasper has been impressive for much of the season. Stevenson has shown signs of being a force on defense. Even Michael Porter has looked promising.

Who knows how this season will play itself out. Maybe Kentucky will get hot and make a run, and this argument will be a moot point. Stranger things have happened. But Tubby has got to prove that he can still get a hold of his players. He has to prove that he can still motivate his players to play hard all game long. He has to prove that he can coach like he did between 2003 and 2005. But most importantly he has to prove that he can adapt his own coaching styles if he expects to win.