The State of the Bluegrass: Tigres y Gatos, Part Deux

helmets

Well folks, it appears as if my beloved Kentucky Wildcats will have their most recent must win / statement game / game of the year this weekend when they travel to Columbia, Missouri to take on the Tigers of Mizzou. This comes after a couple heartbreaking losses for the Cats. After a magical, and nearly perfect [damn you Florida] start to the season UK will look to erase the last 2 weeks and get back to their [new] winning ways.

(Photo Credit, Chris Granger, The Times-Picayune)

(Photo Credit, Chris Granger, The Times-Picayune)

 

The first of those losses [Tigers v. Cats Part One], was somewhat of a brutal mauling in the box score, but the game itself wasn’t nearly as bad as the score indicated. The Defense played LSU tough, but the brutality with which LSU traditionally wears teams down, and the absolutely overpowering aura of Death Valley proved too much for this particular Cats team to handle. Thats ok. They’re young. They’re learning. They’re improving. And even the best teams have trouble going down to Death Valley and winning. Better times are on the horizon.

Speaking of which, last weekend’s game against #1 ranked Mississippi State presented just such a reason for optimism and sign of growth. Kentucky lost at home to the Bulldogs 45 – 31 this past Saturday, but showed us just about every positive the Bluegrass State could ask for. The 45 points is veeeery misleading. MSU scored their last 14 points on a 73 yard run by Josh Robinson, and that fluke of all flukes kickoff return for 61 yards. Take those points away and Kentucky only gave up 31 points to Mississippi State, a more than reasonable score considering they’re the #1 team in the country with the (former) Heisman favorite Quarterbacking them (a guy people had been comparing to the lofty likes of Tim Tebow and Cam Newton all season long). Hold a team like that to 31 points and with a little luck (turnovers, big plays, special teams) you have the brewings of an upset.

Now, we all knew getting a win against #1 (even at home where we have been incredibly effective this season) would require a lot of help in the way of luck. We needed mistakes by MSU players and coaches, turnovers, and big plays to turn our way while limiting our mistakes to zero and keeping the thing close all day. We got some, but not all, of the necessary ingredients for an upset on Saturday. Dan Mullen made one of his patented bone headed moves, going for it on 4th and 10 to start the 4th quarter instead of punting and pining the Cats deep, giving Kentucky a chance to tie the game immediately after the Kentucky offense had thrown together an absolutely stellar TD pass from Patrick Towles to Javess Blue cut the lead to 7 late in the 3rd.

The Cats, however, didn’t capitalize on that drive. Instead they went 3 and out and punted the ball right back to MSU with the score still 31-24 Bulldogs. So we weren’t able to capitalize on the big MSU mental mistake we were hoping for.

Moreover, we didn’t quite get the MSU mistakes on the field we needed either. Generally to pull an upset you need a couple turnovers. Well, in addition to forcing tons of 3 and outs, and being absolute beasts on 3rd down, our defense forced 4 fumbles out of Mississippi State. Yet somehow we couldn’t recover a single one of them. That’s not bad coaching or bad playing, just bad luck. Fumble recoveries are exactly the kind of luck we needed that day and just couldn’t get. Also, the 1 pick we managed came too late in the first half to really swing the game.

Furthermore, we did not play mistake free like we needed to. We had 4 fumbles of our own and lost 1 of them deep in our own territory, setting up an early MSU score that put the Cats on their heels for the rest of the game. If it weren’t for that play the whole game could have been a whole lot tighter all the way through.

While we may not have gotten the luck we needed, and may not have played as mistake free as we needed to, however, we certainly did manage to do a ton of damage to Dak Prescott’s Heisman campaign in my opinion. The only problem was that we made his teammate, Running Back Josh Robinson, look like a Heisman candidate in his own right. Note exhibit A, B, C, and Z:

That was 6 broken tackles if you’re keeping score at home, at it wasn’t until the 7th AND 8th guys hit him together that he was brought down. Also, there was this.

And that, my friends, is perhaps Kentucky’s biggest, [and in my opinion their only major] flaw. Run defense. All three of Kentucky’s losses this year have come in large part at the hands of dominant rushing attacks. Matt Jones rushed for 156 yards and a TD in the Florida game, and as a team Florida had 237 yards on the ground. LSU rushed for a combined 303 yards and 3 rushing TDs against us. And Robinson just burned us for 198 and 2 TDs, while as a team MSU poured on 326 yards and 4 rushing TDs. Hell, even their premier win of the year vs. South Carolina featured a stellar rushing performance by Mike Davis who ran for 183 yards and 3 TDs. Plain and simple this particular Kentucky team stops the run about as well as Wonder Bread stops an atomic bomb…

If you’re wondering, no… the Wonder Bread did not survive the test…

crying bread

The problem is tackling. Kentucky football was blessed with 3 consecutive iterations of spectacular interior linebackers. It started with Wesley Woodyard (2x First Team All SEC). Moved on to Danny Trevathon (1 First Team All SEC and 1 Second Team All SEC). And ended last year with Avery Williamson (1 Second Team All SEC). All three of these guys are now starting in the NFL, and Woodyard was the Defensive captain of the Super Bowl runner up Denver Broncos last year. Soooo its fair to say we have been slightly spoiled at the position.

Unfortunately for Kentucky fans, all three of their Holy Trinity of Inside Linebackers have moved on to the NFL, and while I'm certainly happy for them, I would certainly love to see any of them in the Kentucky Blue again.

Unfortunately for Kentucky fans, all three of their Holy Trinity of Inside Linebackers have moved on to the NFL, and while I’m certainly happy for them, I would certainly love to see any of them in the Kentucky Blue again.

I mentioned in my preseason article how much this team would miss Williamson, the most recent of these three All-SEC linebackers to graduate. He covered up innumerable mistakes and mismatches for Kentucky during his time in Blue, and while I certainly had hoped that the defense could make up for his departure with growth elsewhere, I was skeptical.

(Photo Credit, David Stephenson, Lexington Herald-Leader)

(Photo Credit, David Stephenson, Lexington Herald-Leader)

Now, part of my hopes came true. This Kentucky defense is definitely better than any defense Williamson was ever a part of. However, the linebacking corps is undoubtedly worse with his departure. There appears to be a plauge of ‘arm tacklers’ on this team. Guys try to tackle opposing running backs with a single arm, or simply by hitting them without wrapping them up and dragging them to the ground. They don’t finish the play and bring the guy to the ground. This kind of thing might work for the best of the best, but that is not what we have at Kentucky. What we have are GOOD players. Not great but good. And coaches who put those players in positions to make plays and stop running backs. Unfortunately, their weak tackling and poor technique are hopelessly easy for opposing running backs to break, as Robinson demonstrated by breaking 6 tackles on a single run this weekend. Let’s just show you once more to illustrate the point.

Yeeeeesh.

Now, thats not to say that our defenders can’t stop the run. Our secondary is much improved, and can make tackles when called upon, but if an opposing running back has broken into your secondary, the battle is already lost. You need to stop them at the 2nd level, aka the linebackers, as a worst case scenario, and never want to be stopping them at the 3rd level (your secondary). So lets ignore that for a second. Ideally you’d LIKE to stop them right at the line of scrimmage, at the defensive line. Our D Line does an excellent job at this. That is where the elite players of this unit are located. Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith and beasts, and while their primary roles are to be pass rushers, they know how to wrap up their man and bring him down if the opposing team decides to rush to the edge. They’re quick enough to get to their man and strong enough to bring him down. Where Kentucky struggles, however, is when opponents run up the middle and overpower us.

Matt Elam is a truly elite run stopper at Nose Tackle. The man is an absolute wooly mammoth out there.

I can’t even figure out how guys ever get around him. Unfortunately for UK, however, the coaching staff hasn’t made him an every down player yet. Perhaps because he hasn’t developed the requisite stamina to be an every down, or near every down player. Perhaps because they fear his youth will make him prone to mistakes. Or perhaps they simlply like keeping him fresh for crucial 3rd downs etc. The fact of the matter he isn’t and every down guy. Our other DTs are very very good, but not elite, so of course occasionally a RB breaks through them. This is just going to happen more often than not in the game of football when you have 5 offensive linemen and a Tight End blocking against 4 defensive linemen. The battle is inherently out of the defense’s favor.

Josh Forrest. A Kentucky native and next man up in UK's line of Inside Linebackers. (Photo Credit @UKFootball Twitter account)

Josh Forrest. A Kentucky native and next man up in UK’s line of Inside Linebackers. (Photo Credit @UKFootball Twitter account)

That’s where your Middle linebacker needs to step up and make the play. Thats what we had with Woodyard, Trevathan, and Williamson. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to muster these stops consistently with this year’s team. Now don’t get me wrong. Josh Forrest  is undoubtedly a good player. And his interceptions are certainly a sight for sore eyes (2 this year when we, as a team, only had 2 all last year). Moreover, he certainly has a ton of tackles so far this year (65), but unfortunately that doesn’t tell the whole story. His technique needs work, and he could probably stand to get a little stronger so he wouldn’t struggle so much bringing down the Aurochs and Buffalo most SEC teams utilize as running backs. He already has most of the physical tools for him to be the next elite UK Middle Linebacker. He just needs to work on his technique and put everything together yet. That’s when the 300 yard rushing games stop. A day that can’t come soon enough.

Hopefully Forrest improves over the next few games (as a crucial stretch of win-able road games is now in front of Kentucky with Mizzou, Tennessee, and Louisville… Georgia… mmm… maybe not so much… but 3/4 ain’t bad!) and hopefully he and current freshmen inside linebackers Nico Firios and Dorian Hendrix can stabilize the position for years to come. For the time being, however, lets look at the positives! This Kentucky team, flaws and all, just took the #1 team in the country to the wire. With what little luck Kentucky had it is amazing how close they managed to make this game. Pat Towles had by far the best game of his career. Senior receivers Javess Blue (still the best name of any Kentucky player ever) and Demarco Robinson were all over the field making spectacular plays. The defense was stout and solid. And we didn’t even have our best offensive weapon, freshman running back Stanley “Boom” Williams, on the field!

A little reminder for those who forgot.

And while Blue’s TD was indeed impressive, and MSU’s Josh Robinson was incredibly good all day, let’s not forget Kentucky’s own Robinson. Mr. Demarco Robinson had a nifty touchdown of his own.

Those feet!! Those magical feet!!! How did they stay inbounds!!??

Anyway, we gave MSU all they could handle. And as an aside, yes the onside kick was the right call. That touchdown was a freak occurrence. With the penalty on the previous PAT an onside kick risks giving the ball to MSU on the 35 yard line, but a kick out of the endzone would have put them at the 25 yard line anyway. 10 yards is more than worth the risk of getting the ball. Yes, angry Kentucky fans EVEN WITH TWO TIMEOUTS left. With the way Josh Robinson was running the ball you probably only have a 15% chance of getting the ball back with enough time left on the clock to score, and only a 5% chance of actually scoring. So yes, the risk of the onside kick was the correct call. And this game should only have been a 7 point loss… 10 points worst case scenario. Again, that was a freak play. Ok, glad we put that one to rest… hope you got all your anger out.

Here, have some Wonder Bread. Freshly toasted.

BUT ANYWAY to push things in a more positive direction, I say all this to talk about why Kentucky’s next game is their biggest big game of the year of the century yet! Kentucky plays Mizzou this weekend as they take their 3rd shot at clinching bowl eligibility. Now, while Kentucky has gone winless on the road thus far this season, Columbia is not exactly the same kind of road environment as The Swamp and Death Valley. In fact, Mizzou has been garbage in their last 3 home appearances this year. Consider the evidence:

Last week Mizzou played Vanderbilt (far and away the worst team in the SEC this year) at home and barely snuck out a 24-14 win. [That snapped a 2 game home losing streak by the way.] Now, they did win this game so you have to give them credit there, but if Vandy can play Missouri that tight at home, Why Not Kentucky? (see what I did there Mark Stoops?)

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Three weeks ago, October 11th, they played a Georgia team reeling from recently losing Heisman candidate Running Back Todd Gurley to suspension and were SHUT OUT! AT HOME! BY A TEAM MISSING THEIR BEST PLAYER! Now, Georgia can do that to a lot of folks. They’re that good. But shutout? C’mon. UK may have gotten bloodied in Baton Rouge, but we didn’t get shut out… and that was a road game… not at home… egads Mizzou…

Now here is the real beauty. Saturday, September 20th. Mizzou welcomed the Indiana Hoosiers Football Team to town. The same Hoosiers team that is 10-26 combined the last three seasons. The same Indiana that has finished last or second to last in the Big 10 the last 6 years running. The same Indiana team which, even with their big road upset of Mizzou has only been able to muster a 3-4 record this season. Their other 2 wins on the season? Those came against Indiana State (an FCS school…) and North Texas (2-6 on the year and the worst team in Conference USA…) Not exactly the same kind of competition as Kentucky. Now sure, Indiana plays some fun, high tempo offense this year. They try to make every game a shootout and hope they can outscore their opponent, defenses be damned. But still, how the hell did you lose to Indiana, Mizzou?? If the hapless Hoosiers can do it, Kentucky surely can too.

This Kentucky team isn’t perfect. They’re also not as good as some of the crazies would have had you believe after that 5-1 start (win the SEC East? Next year? Maybe. This year? Let’s just get to a bowl game please). The run defense is a flaw, and the offense doesn’t always click on all cylinders. Next week, however, there’s no reason to think this UK team can’t grab its first road win of the year. The offense looks the best it has all year, and can only get better once Boom gets back in the lineup. Matt Elam and our young Secondary get better with every game we play. And Missouri has proven that they are anything but intimidating at home. These are not the Bayou Bengals of LSU,  but perhaps something more akin to Hello Kitty in Yellow and Black. So bring on your super scarey “Stripe Out” Mizzou, cuz I’m about ready for the Wildcats to avenge those stupid T-Shirts you made… Right about meow motherfuckers… Go Cats.

mizzout

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Born Again in the Bluegrass: The Year of Perpetual Statement Games

Kentucky Football is on the rise. Or so UK fans tell themselves every week as they walk out of Commonwealth Stadium. But somehow, by the time next week’s game starts, they’re back to their old ways. Cursing the refs and wailing “Oooooonly Kentucky football.” Its as if everyone believes Billy Gillispie is sitting in some hut down in the Bayou somewhere casting some voodoo shit on us. Making us think we lose even when we win.

Dontchu use dat voodoo magic on me Billy G... Keep dat shit to yo'self

Dontchu use dat voodoo magic on me Billy G… Keep dat shit to yo’self

Mark Stoops’ “Why Not” campaign is every bit as much for the UK fanbase as it is for recruits and players. This coaching staff is built top to bottom with winners. They win recruiting battles, the win football games, hell, the Defensive Line Mark Stoops and D.J. Elliot built won a national title down at Florida State. The players are winners too. Maybe not all the juniors and seniors. They’ve lived through 2 years of Joker Phillips losses and Stoops’ first 2-10 season, but everyone that has been brought in from JUCO guys to transfers to recruits, redshirts to freshman starters, they’re all winners. They were all the best players at their high schools, some of the best players in their states, and some of them were among the best players in the United States as recruits.

(Photo Credit: UK Athletics)

(Photo Credit: UK Athletics)

As Kentucky Football fans we loooove to talk about how Bear Bryant started here. How he won the SEC and his first national title with us, before Alabama so cruelly stole him away from us. We’ll tell you that the spread offense that took off in the Big 12 during the late 90s and 2000s started with Hal Mumme and Tim Couch at UK, and even Tom Leach’s golden years of the Air Raid Offense at Texas Tech with stars like Michael Crabtree (which Neil Brown still coaches today for his Alma Mater) originated at UK. And somehow, none of this helps us shake the stink of years of consistent struggles. We may show blips of success (1950 National Title, 1976 Co-SEC Champs, ’97 Tim Couch and Hal Mumme knock off Alabama in Commonwealth Stadium, ’98 they beat LSU in Baton Rouge, and in ’99 Tim Couch became the #1 overall pick in the NFL Draft. The 2007 miracle victory over #1 LSU and the 2008 near upset of #2 Alabama in Tuscaloosa in front of 90,000 pissed off Bama fans.) but  I can count those moments on my hands, and one of them didn’t even involve UK, it involved a kid leaving for the NFL draft. And if you wanna take it further, it just takes one look at the list to see its few and far between when we even get to a bowl game.

But that right there is the Kentucky fan mentality. Every kid and coach on this team is a winner. They know how to win. Winning is all they’ve done. But the fans? Except for those rare blips of glory, all they’ve done is lose, lose, lose no matter what. The people involved with the team may not need to learn how to win, but the fans sure do. And this whole year will be one big learning lesson by the looks of things, which I’m more than ready to embrace.

Its become a little bit comical to me how every single game every single week is the “game of the year” for us. UT Martin and Ohio were important because of last year’s loss to Western Kentucky in Nashville. We had to make sure there weren’t going to be any more stupid slip ups. Florida was important because it was Stoops first big chance for a signature win of the year (and if theres such a thing as a signature loss he certainly got one, but oh well). Vanderbilt was huge because it was our best chance to end the streak of 0 wins in conference against SEC teams since November 26, 2011… almost 3 full years (but what a win that was).

South Carolina was big because it was another chance for that elusive signature win for Stoops. Hell, even Louisiana-Monroe was important because it represented a potential 5th win for the year (meaning we now have 6 tries to get our 6th win and qualify for a bowl) and because we needed to avoid a trap game and a let down before the big LSU game next week. And obviously the LSU game is our latest “Game of the Year… of the week…”

And even though we’re already setting ourselves up for another dose of this next week with Mississippi State, it won’t be any less true then either. If we beat LSU, thats SPECTACULAR. A road in in the SEC (our first of the year) in perhaps the most hostile environment in the conference (and maybe all of college football) against a traditional SEC power. This would be huge. But LSU is unranked. We’ve yet to beat a ranked opponent in the Stoops era. Moreover, not only is MSU ranked, they’re the #1 team in the country (deserving or otherwise). So there’s no doubt that would be the game of the year for us whether we win or lose against LSU this week. A win there would mean Kentucky was on the map nationally and would start getting major buzz to fight Georgia for the SEC East title this year.

As far as the game itself, it won’t be easy. Kentucky has only played ONE road game all year so far (@ Florida) so they’re relatively untested and they lost that game so they’re definitely unproven. (Moreover, LSU just went on the road to Florida and beat them by a field goal last week, so in that regard they’ve got us topped.) But even if we’re untested and unproven, that doesn’t mean we haven’t seen them come up big this season. We’ve seen a spectacular touchdown run by Boom Williams in overtime. We’ve seen a perfectly scripted, and executed Neil Brown trick play to Ryan Timmons to tie up the South Carolina game. Hell, we saw a win against Steve Spurrier who has owned Kentucky for his entire college football coaching career. Not to mention we’ve seen an ESPN top play quality grab from our resident athletic freak Javess Blue (holder of the “Best Last Name on the Team” award 2 years running. Sorry Gruenschlaeger. Better luck next year).

(Photo Credit: David Stephenson, AP)

(Photo Credit: David Stephenson, AP)

Kentucky has only played one road game all year, and that was a loss to Florida, but they played them close and easily could have won that game if it weren’t for 2 defensive backs colliding with each other on what could have been the last play of the game. Furthermore, they had some great showings and near misses on the road last season. A near miracle comeback against South Carolina in Columbia and a chance to beat Mississippi State in Starkville with 25 seconds to go and UK on the 30 yard line. So by no means to we simply wilt on the road. Now, we were never tested the same way those drunk Tiger fans will test us at 7:30PM this Saturday, but hell I’ll take my chances. Mark Stoops has done what I never though was possible at Kentucky. He’s built a power running team with a dominant Defensive Line that can compete with anyone in the SEC. I always thought Kentucky could win in the SEC, but I thought it would be with a Big 12 style (Hal Mumme) spread offense that aired it out, over the heads of those rhinoceroses other SEC teams call defensemen. In fact I thought Neil Brown was the much more important part of the Stoops coaching staff as he was not only a Kentucky native, but would bring in this style of offense.

Instead, we have our own rhinoceros in the form of Matt Elam, and a couple stud defensive ends in the form of Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith to anchor the line. Perhaps more importantly, however, UK’s D Line is DEEP. Besides the 3 bluechippers mentioned we’ve got Mike Douglas (whose tipped pass ended up winning us the South Carolina game) Melvin Lewis, Reggie Meant, Jason Hatcher, Cory Johnson, Jabari Johnson, and Farrington Huguenin to ensure that we can always keep a fresh unit on the field, which will be incredibly important against LSU. Because even though LSU is having a down year (one of the main reasons for all this Kentucky optimism going into Death Valley) their running game is still their strength offensively. I can’t remember the last time an LSU wasn’t able to run the ball down Kentucky’s throats. Their quarter back play is definitely questionable this season which is a good thing, because even though UK is #2 in the nation in interceptions, a lot of that is simply broken down plays caused by our D Line wreaking havoc on opposing O Lines and QBs, rather than by stellar secondary play. Moreover, even though a lot was made of Josh Forrest’s 15 tackles in the South Carolina game, our Linebackers struggle mightily to wrap up guys and make tackles. We’ve seen enough broken arm tackles and stiff armed UK players this season to make Wesley Woodyard, Danny Trevathon, and Avery Williamson cry. The Linebacking play NEEDS to get better, but until they do we’ll be relying on the D Line to come up big and shut down Leonard Fournette and Kenny Hilliard at the line of scrimmage if we want to have any chance of getting our Defense off the field, but I for one am hopeful that they can do it.

More of this. (Photo Credit: Travis Spradling)

More of this. (Photo Credit: Travis Spradling)

Less of this (Photo Credit USA Today Sports)

Less of this (Photo Credit USA Today Sports)

Offensively, Stoops has built us an SEC style power running team. We have a stable of running backs so deep it really makes me feel for a guy like Josh Clemons who (because of his injury history) just can’t break into the lineup. Boom Williams, Jojo Kemp, Braylon Heard, Mikel Horton, Ryan Timmons at times, and even the aforementioned Clemens make the RBs by far Kentucky’s deepest skill position, and perhaps the deepest position on the team period. Hell, even QB Patrick Towles rolls out with his enormous 6’5″ frame to run a la Ben Roethlisberger. If it weren’t for the fact that LSU’s Defensive line weren’t composed solely of Grizzly Bears and their Linebacking corps of Silverback Gorillas I’d say we could trust the running game to carry us through the crowd noise and sneak out a tough defensive victory. As it is I’m still happy to take our chances.

This game means a lot to Kentucky. Beating an LSU is an achievement we rarely get to see in the comforts of the Bluegrass state let alone in Death Valley. Doesn’t matter if LSU is ranked or not.  Right now Kentucky is ranked the #30 in the AP Poll compared to LSU’s #27 so a win for either program will jettison them into the top 25, somewhere Kentucky hasn’t been since 2007, the year of our last win against LSU. After that win against #1 LSU UK hosted college game day the next week against #8 Florida, and there’s a 90% chance UK would host it again this time against #1 MSU if they pulled off this upset. So there’s a lot at stake here for fan pride, even without considering the fact that UK is tied for 1st in the SEC East and could put themselves in the driver seat to play in the SEC title game. Now that might not come to be, but it sure is nice to be able to dream with this team after so much losing. Win or lose, everything will be fine. We’ve got a team worth watching and a team that wins. Now we just need to hope the fans can pick up on that, and start believing themselves. Unless of course Les Miles is hanging out in that VooDoo hut with Billy G. Then we’ve probably got some serious, scary shit comin’ our way.

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A Short Aside to a Long-winded Topic

(Photo Credit - Tony Guitierrez, AP)

(Photo Credit – Tony Guitierrez, AP)

So the SEC Meetings went down in Destin, Florida last week. This is one of those non-stories that has become a story in recent times because of how obsessed Americans are with football. However, in spite of that pithy remark, I do believe that nowadays these meetings of the major conferences have become incredibly important. With the slow but steady push over the last 4 years of the power conferences to become super conferences, these meetings have become exceedingly crucial to the fate and future of college sports. The reason of course being the ever present rumors that the power conferences are slowly building themselves up to the point where they can become independent entities from the NCAA or form some sort of federation where they compete with one another and leave the old NCAA schools behind. SO with that in mind these meetings are always something to pay attention to.

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Moreover, this years meetings did not disappoint in this regard as rumors are flying that the SEC will consider a mid range plan to demote themselves to Division 4 competition which would essentially give them jurisdiction over their own scholarship situation and remove the cornucopia of fetters which the NCAA lashes on them. Furthermore, with the conference already sitting at 14 teams (and all big schools capable of competing in the conference) and the possibility always open for further expansion in the future, the competition within conference would still be enough to keep the SEC as the premier football conference in the country. It also makes perfect sense that these conversations are happening at this particular moment in time because the SEC Network is launching this season.

SEC Network logo

Plausibly, the SEC will want to jump through the NCAA hoops for maybe a couple more as they cement the financial stability of the Network. However, with an ESPN – SEC alliance and American football mania at an all time high and growing, I see absolutely no scenario wherein the SEC Network fails. This thing is going to be a colossal financial success. Once this truth becomes evident, the SEC would be completely free to break with the NCAA and move to Division 4 as rumored. There are enough teams in conference to maintain a high level of competition. Recruits would still come to the conference (and even be more likely to do so because the SEC could offer more scholarships and scholarship money in D4 than the NCAA allows them to offer in D1. Moreover, its important to note that the best recruits in the country largely choose their colleges based on a desire to get to the NFL. And the NFL, for their part, could not care less where an athlete played college ball as long as they think he can play. There would be absolutely no stigma in this regard when it came to NFL scouting. This move which seems farcical at first, would allow the SEC to keep all their prestige intact while leaving them open to move more freely than they are currently. In short then… this could totally happen. Plus it would be a near mortal blow to the NCAA which would make countless sports fans happy.

The NFL couldn't care less which conference or division a kid plays in when it comes to draft day as Eric Fisher (#1 overall last year)  and Khalil Mach (#4 overall this year) both from the Mid-American Conference, taught us. (Photo Credit - Al Bello, Getty Images)

The NFL couldn’t care less which conference or division a kid plays in when it comes to draft day as Eric Fisher (#1 overall last year) and Khalil Mach (#4 overall this year) both from the Mid-American Conference, taught us. (Photo Credit – Al Bello, Getty Images)

(Photo Credit - Elsa, Getty Images)

(Photo Credit – Elsa, Getty Images)

However, not everyone would be happy. These kind of power moves are fantastic for the large schools, but they would crush mid major sports. Obviously this is a larger issue in basketball than football, but the fact remains the same, that the smaller schools (such as NDSU) would be badly hurt in the long run if they could no longer get those big pay days from playing an SEC or a Big 10 or PAC 12 school at the beginning of the year. Those paydays often keep a lot of athletic departments afloat, and without them I can’t even imagine the damage that would be done.

(Photo Credit - Reese Strickland, USA Today Sports)

(Photo Credit – Reese Strickland, USA Today Sports)

However, this kind of damage may happen anyway even if the SEC doesn’t break with the NCAA, and it may happen sooner than we think. Another topic on the agenda for the SEC was a desire from the power football schools in the conference (Alabama, LSU, Florida, Georgia, etc) to force SEC school to cut FCS opponents (and potential upsets) from their schedules entirely and focus on shifting their schedules to play only power conference schools. Now, as a Kentucky fan this somewhat of a scary prospect as those gimme wins against FCS schools are often much needed wins which can push the team to bowl eligibility. However, this problem becomes neutralized when you remember that schools like Kansas, Wake Forest, and Indiana are in power conferences. Meaning that even though all three of them have historically atrocious football programs, we would be allowed to play (and beat) all of them, perhaps by even wider margins than we could beat an FCS team (I would much rather play Indiana every year than play NDSU. NDSU could have beaten Indiana by 20 this past season).

(Photo Credit - David Stephenson, Lexington Herald Leader)

(Photo Credit – David Stephenson, Lexington Herald Leader)

Now, this isn’t collusion by the SEC teams to hurt the little guys and undercut the NCAA. It actually has a lot more to do with the 4 team playoff system. SEC powers wont to ensure the entire conference has no chinks in the armor so all of Alabama, Florida, and LSU’s in conference wins continue to count for more than a PAC 12 win does. Beating up on FCS teams hurts SEC Strength of Schedule arguments, because opposing teams can say the mid and lower teams of the SEC on beat terrible teams and that its just a top heavy conference. This new system would change that and make the SEC Schedules much more unassailable.

(Photo Credit - Gerald Herbert, AP)

(Photo Credit – Gerald Herbert, AP)

For the smaller schools like NDSU, however, the fact remains that this would still be a devastating outcome. Think back to last season for a second. What was the most exciting game of the regular season? The win at Kansas State, right? Hell, I think that was the most exciting game of the season PERIOD, even including the playoffs and the national championship game.

Obviously I’m glad we won the title and completed the three-peat, but that game wasn’t in question the entire time. We dismantled Towson. K State was a battle. We had a great core of fans travel down to the game. Hell, it even felt regional and local in a way the National Title game never does. I had a lot more fun watching our little David slay the Goliath in our own back yard (Kansas, also in the upper Midwest like us) than watch us as Goliath destroy a team from the East Coast in Texas. That just feels like an artificial construct, and there was no excitement anyway because everyone knew we were going to blow them out.

My point in bringing all this up is just to reiterate the fact that for quite a while now that early season BCS opponent game has been the most exciting part of NDSU’s season. We have so far and away outgrown our surroundings in FCS that I’m not even entertained by watching the Bison crack the skulls of wildly inferior FCS foes. Now, however, the Power Schools are all going to begin shifting away from FCS opponents. Once the SEC completes this transition to all Power Conference opponents the other Power Conferences will follow suit to make sure the SEC doesn’t retain another competitive advantage. That means no more Iowa State game for NDSU. No more Kansas State. No more Minnesota (even though they’re afraid to play NDSU anymore because they can’t beat the Bison). Frankly put, no more fun for me in the regular season.

(Photo Credit - Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports)

(Photo Credit – Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports)

I understand that NDSU is about to enter a maaaaaaajor rebuild with Coach Bohl leaving for Wyoming, but imagine how much harder the rebuild will or would be without the influx of cash from those big opponent games, and the influx of fan excitement and energy that comes with playing those games (win OR lose). NDSU in its current for cannot remain a major power playing only FCS opponents. It is going to stymie growth and likely prevent us from ever reaching the enormous potential that I know this athletic department has.

But there’s nothing we can do about what the SEC or the Big 10 or the PAC 12 and Big 12 want to do. Their schedules are their business (literally… there’s tons of money at stake here) and I have no qualms with them doing whats right by themselves. However, that doesn’t mean that I want NDSU to roll over and throw in the towel. This problem can be quickly remedied (and yes… I can hear your groaning through the computer screen as I bring up my pet project yet again BUT IT IS VALID AND IMPORTANT AND I CAN SHOUT REAL LOUD AND HAVE A BLOG SO LISTEN UP!!!!) if NDSU would make the jump up to D1-A. The only way to ensure this quality of opponent (and frankly quality of game and product) are maintained is to move into a conference where this level of competition is the norm, rather than a once a year treat like it is now for Bison fans.

The winds of college sports are shifting. Nobody likes the NCAA. They’re corrupt and incompetent and the major schools are fed up with it. The preliminary moves are already in place for the Power Schools to jump ship and send the NCAA sinking to the bottom of the ocean. The only problem is that there are no life rafts left over for the Mid-Majors. They’re gonna be left hanging out like the orchestra on the freaking titanic. Its going to be hard enough for the D1-A schools in minor conferences like the MAAC and the AAC to survive. Its going to be nearly impossible for the FCS schools to do so. NDSU has begun to build some amazing sports momentum. They’ve created a beautiful sports community in the last 7 or 8 years and College Gameday felt like a beautiful crowning achievement this year. But if we want this fun to continue in any capacity we need to move fast before it all goes away… otherwise… well… play me off boys…

UK’s Foray into Real SEC Football

(Photo: WBIR/USA Today Sports)

(Photo: WBIR/USA Today Sports)

Over the weekend Kentucky continued its run as Linebacker U this weekend when Avery Williamson got drafted by his home state Tennessee Titans in the 5th round. Unfortunately, it has been brought to my attention that he will not be allowed to commute from Nashville to Lexington on Saturdays to play for the Cats… dammit… So it looks as if Kentucky will have at least one enormous hole in their team this  season at inside linebacker, but I figured now was as good a time as any to take a look at the rest of the team and see what we might be in for next season.

(Photo Credit - James Holt)

(Photo Credit – James Holt)

If I judge just from the Spring Game (I realize this is not the best place to judge what the team will look like, but its the only real info I’ve got), this is going to be a real old fashioned, throwback football team. We’re gonna win or lose in the trenches and in the running game. And honestly, while that sounds boring on the surface that is exactly the kind of football I like to watch. At its heart football is a game about physicality and power. Hell, when they first invented the forward pass people wanted it outlawed. Now I love precision passing and finesse offenses as much as the next guy, and we’ll have our fair share of that in Kentucky once our receivers and QBs get some more experience under their belts. For now though, we’re rebuilding this program the right way. We’re making sure  our team can do all the dirty work before we throw on the bells and whistles.

(Photo Credit - Randy Sartin)

(Photo Credit – Randy Sartin)

Right now the strengths of this Kentucky team are the defensive line and the running backs. While we have a lot of talent and a lot of potential at a lot of positions, those are the only two areas that we can be sure are a strength until we see some of these other guys develop. On the D Line and in the running backs corps no development is needed.

Now, while the NFL has become a pass happy league, college football, and the SEC in particular haven’t thrown out the old fashioned grit and grind yet. LSU has, for pretty much their entire history been a team that plays physical defense and runs the ball down your thrown on offense, only passing for a few big plays down field once you finally decide you’re sick of getting mauled by their O-Line and Running Backs. Alabama is the same way, and those two teams are the class of the league. So while the NFL and even other college conferences such as the Big 12 hve fully embraced the new pass first variant of football, the SEC is a dinosaur which I for one appreciate (for the time being anyway).

(Photo Credit - Kevin C. Cox)

(Photo Credit – Kevin C. Cox)

However, to be a dinosaur in the modern world is pretty tough. I mean it worked out pretty well for those raptors in Jurassic Park I guess, but you don’t see many T-Rex’s in the United States do you? But anyway, Joker Phillips  tried to build a team at Kentucky on this model of smashmouth football and it failed pretty miserably. Whereas a pass heavy spread offense can give a less talented team a comparative advantage over the powerhouses like Alabama, more often than not, trying to go toe to toe with them is a death knell.

Ladies and gentlemen your 2014 Alabama Crimson Tide secondary!

Ladies and gentlemen your 2014 Alabama Crimson Tide secondary!

In order to break through the silverback gorillas that Alabama and LSU call defensive linemen. You can play this old school style of football when you have the pick of the litter for college prospects. If you have the best talent in the country you don’t need gimmicks you just need to sit back and laugh as your team utterly emasculates your opponents. Tell’m Arnold…

However, when you’re an undermanned team like Kentucky that proposition becomes a lot harder. However, this year we’ve got something special. On the defensive line we have the type of top level talent that could start at Alabama (if not the depth they have at the position) and at running back we have the kind of talent, athleticism, physical power AND depth to go toe to toe (or honestly beat out) any other team in the SEC.

(Photo Credit - Mark Cornelison)

(Photo Credit – Mark Cornelison)

On the D line we have 2 of the best defensive ends in the conference in Professor Za’Darius Smith and Bud Dupree. Coach Stoops is a defensively minded coach, and specifically favors the D Line. He built the D Line that just carried Florida State to a national title and his first move at Kentucky was to bring in one of the best JUCO players in the country in Za’Darius.

Intimidating in the classroom and the football field alike. (Photo by East Mississippi CC sports information)

Intimidating in the classroom and the football field alike. (Photo by East Mississippi CC sports information)

Big Z is the face of this Kentucky rebuild, and his former Junior College coach (Coach Jim Brumbaugh) came in with Stoops as our new D Line coach to make sure we play the kind of Defense Stoops wants. I can’t sell Coach Brumbaugh to you enough. Yes Z is an astounding talent and gets credit for all the work he’s done making himself into the player he is today, but he was a basketball payer before Brumbaugh got ahold of him. Thats why Z had to go to Junior College in the first place before jumping up immediately to the SEC level. in just 2 years together Brumbaugh turned Z from a basketball player into defensive menace in just two years, so having him will help develop the younger talent on this team. In fact, he already helped develop Bud Dupree from linebacker to a 2nd team all SEC defensive end in just one season. Not even 1 calender year. The guy can coach.

(Photo by 247 Sports)

(Photo by 247 Sports)

There was fear that we would lose both these guys to the draft this year but we got them both back for their senior seasons, meaning they will anchor this SEC caliber defensive line for the entire year. Moreover, Stoops and company have done an amazing job restocking the cupboards on defense for when we lose these guys. When you talk about needed the best talent in the country to play this style of football it doesn’t get any sweeter than stealing a beast of a nose tackle like Matt Elam right out from under Nick Saban. He needs to lose some weight and work on his stamina, but after seeing what Brumbaugh did with Z and Bud I have complete faith in him. Line him up next to 6’4″ 300lbs  red shirt freshman Regie Meant and we have a pretty intimidating front 4 for the 4-3 defense. Moreover, we have returning sophomore DE Jason Hatcher (whom Stoops stole from USC) continuing to develop and adding depth to the line. Bud and Z will help shepherd the talented (but young) linemen we have and all things considered we should finally be able to bang with the big boys in the trenches.

(Photo Credit - Timothy D. Easley)

(Photo Credit – Timothy D. Easley)

The fear is obviously that our secondary remains a major weakness and our Linebacking corps is taking a huge step back this year since the only truly outstanding player we had last year, Avery Williamson, just graduated, but the theory will be that if your D Line is beastly enough they’ll stuff any run before it even gets to the linebackers and create enough pass pressure that your Linebackers can drop back into coverage without needing to blitz. That way you can hope to win on sheer numbers against the pass. Its a risky strategy to be sure, but hey, it worked for Detroit in 2011 with Ndamukong Suh, Cliff Avril, Kyle Vanden Bosch, and Nick Fairley so it can work for us too.

On offense then we’re going old school too. This team has such insane depth at Running back that I’m worried some guys might end up transferring. I have no idea how we can get all these guys on the field and they all deserve to be starters. Moreover, we have such a colorful mix of abilities we can do pretty much anything you want running the ball. Josh Clemons is my favorite story of the bunch. I was shocked when we got him to commit in the first place 3 years ago. The man is an absolute giant with biceps bigger than my head. No really! Look at those things!

(Photo Credit - Darrell Bird)

(Photo Credit – Darrell Bird)

They look like they’re inflated water floaties or something. Absolutely absurd. However, the guy hasn’t played a season for us yet… He’s had back to back devastating injuries but looks to be back as close to 100% as possible. Moreover, of all the backs we have he’s the most multidimensional. The guy is enormous as stated so he can run between the tackles, but he also has the speed necessary to get around the edge on the outside and break off big gains. Moreover, he can be a QBs best friend with dump off and screen passes since he has such solid hands. The guy is the whole package.

However, he’s not the only back we’ve got. If you wanna talk about SEC power running we can throw Braylon Heard (Jr. Transfer out of Nebraska) or Mikel Horton (4 star recruit out of Ohio and the #12 RB in his class) at you. If you want speed and agility on the outside we’ve got the tiny but devastating JoJo Kemp or T.V. Williams. Hell, we could even bring Ryan Timmons into the backfield on end arounds. Long story short, anything a coach would possibly want to do with a running back, we can do it and we can do it really freaking well.

(Photo Credit - Rogelio V. Solis)

(Photo Credit – Rogelio V. Solis)

So obviously we’re not a complete team yet. The staff has proved that they can recruit the necessary talent to fill the many holes in this roster. Now its just a matter of developing them. All the eyes will be on the Patrick Towles vs. Drew Barker QB battle, and with Neil Brown’s Air Raid offense returning to the Bluegrass people will be expecting big plays from the bevy of 4 star receivers we’ve brought in. However, the real bread on butter of this team is gonna come from the trenches… whether that means breaking through them or making sure nobody else does.

We may not be great this year. We may be in for a lot of growing pains with so much youth in the secondary, linebacking corps, and all over the field on offense. But this year if we lose we’re definitely going down swinging and we’re definitely gonna hurt someone on our way out the door. No more rolling over and quitting. This team is here to play old school football and play it well no matter who they have to line up against.

kentucky-football-helmet

The Precarious World of Pro Sports Branding

(Photo Credit - Charles Rex Arbogast)

(Photo Credit – Charles Rex Arbogast)

I love John Wall. That kid helped save Kentucky from the Billy Gillispie death spiral, and turned into a recruiting springboard that Calipari could use to keep the recruiting freight train that is Kentucky Basketball rolling.

Billy - "C'mon man!! Will the cheap shots never end?!?!" No Billy... they won't... (Photo Credit - Chris O'Meara)

Billy – “C’mon man!! Will the cheap shots never end?!?!” No Billy… they won’t… (Photo Credit – Chris O’Meara)

So anyway I’ve had a lot of fun watching this Wizards team knock out the Bulls. I forgot just how beautifully John Wall moves on a basketball court and how easy he makes it look. The guy is like a freaking ice dancer out there. Its beautiful to watch. However, I’ve actually enjoyed watching the entire process of the Wizard’s rebuild and re-branding that started in 2010 with the drafting of Johnny Wonder. I watched the NBA lottery that year and rooted for Washington to get the #1 pick the whole time. I always pay attention to whose gonna get drafted by the Wizards and who they bring in during the offseason. Most of the time that was a miserable cast of Nick Youngs and Andre Blatches, but this year they finally figured something out. And what’s more, that something is hilarious and fun to watch! I mean.. the Polish Hammer ALONE is enough to make me love this team. Who doesn’t love a big sloppy white eastern European center!

Look at this guy! You embrace that nickname you beautiful man you!

Look at this guy! You embrace that nickname you beautiful man you!

SO ferocious! Noone can stand in his way!

SO ferocious! Noone can stand in his way!

But he also has a tender side! He's the full package!

But he also has a tender side! He’s the full package!

So anyway, between Wall and Gortat I clearly approve of the Wizards’ roster overhaul. That’s not the only thing that changed though. In 1997 Abe Pollin announced that Washington’s NBA team would no longer be known as the Bullets. It was decided that in the wake of the “war on guns” and in light of the area’s extreme problems with gun crimes a name like “bullet” sent a bad message to young kids in the area watching the NBA. Now, this would all be fine and well, but they made two atrocious mistakes in re-branding their team. One was changing the colors away from red white and blue… there was no reason for this! And the other was choosing their new name… the Wizards… I’m a big proponent of team names fitting their area. So for instance I think the St. Louis Blues might be the best name in sports right now, and the New Orleans Jazz was the best sports name ever conceived (DAMMIT UTAH!!! GIVE NEW ORLEANS THEIR NAME BACK!!! Just become the Utah Mormons already). Wizards though? As far as I know there are no Gandalfs or Dumbeldores in Washington…

Look at this shit show. The colors... the concept... its all terrible... in fact, I would venture so far as to say this is a hate crime against Wizards everywhere. Someone contact Hogwarts and let's get litigious on this atrocity!

Look at this shit show. The colors… the concept… its all terrible… in fact, I would venture so far as to say this is a hate crime against Wizards everywhere. Someone contact Hogwarts and let’s get litigious on this atrocity!

HOWEVER starting in the 2011-2012 season the Washington Professional Basketball Team (copyright Bill Simmons and Joe House) reverted back to their original colors of Red White and Blue. This is only fitting seeing as they play in our nation’s capital. Now, they didn’t change the team name, but hopefully that’s in the works. They did, however, change something else to disastrous effect… the team logo…

wizards_alt_logo_hand

Ok so there are definitely some good things here. I like the simplicity of it. I love associating with DC and the subtlety of the basketball reference. However… and there’s no way to put this lightly… but… that, my friends… is clearly a phallus… there’s no way around it… *sigh*

I don’t know what this says about me but I realized this immediately a couple years ago when they launched this thing. I can’t believe I’m the only one, but apparently nobody in the Wizards organization realizes this. Either that or they already rolled it out and are now in full on ostrich head in the sand mode.

Ostrich Wizard

Now I assume they rolled out this logo with a couple things in mind. First it hearkens back to the old Bullets logo, and second its nondescript enough that if they do change the team name they can at least keep the logo. It associates with the team and the city but not the ‘mascot’ or ‘nickname’ so it left their options open. However… I think a redesign is necessary guys.

Clearly they drew inspiration for the "hands reaching for the ball" thing from their own logo, even if they didn't think things all the way through.

Clearly they drew inspiration for the “hands reaching for the ball” thing from their own logo, even if they didn’t think things all the way through.

I realize logos, nicknames, and colors shouldn’t matter to me. These are all branding things. They’re developed by marketing guys who just want my money. What should really matter is the team, the players, the history. However, this stuff has always mattered to me and always will. Teams that are associated with their area’s history and background just resonate better with me. The Cowboys in Dallas, The Bison in North Dakota, the Steelers in Pittsburgh. These are just great and they blow the Toronto Raptors (chosen because Jurassic Park was hot at the time and they thought it would make kids force their parents to buy the gear) or the Charlotte Bobcats (chosen by then owner Bob Johnson because he wanted his name to be included in the team name…). So I really hope the Wizards go through with this renaming thing, and redesign the logo while they’re at it. Then I can go back to being a bandwagon fan from afar of my beloved John Wall and Marcin Gortat. Otherwise this picture of Marcin Gortat cupping two balls will be forever tainted for me… and I just can’t have that.

gortat

 

Brotherly Love and the NBA Draft

(Photo Credit - Jamie Squire)

(Photo Credit – Jamie Squire)

The NBA is a tough place to land a job, and an even tougher place to hang on to a job.  As such, any little bit helps when you’re trying to stick around, and trying to make yourself look marketable in an increasingly competitive workplace. For some guys this stuff is simple. Its physical. A guy like Hasheem Thabeet has proven himself to be a stiff who just can’t compete at the NBA level in spite of his college pedigree. And yet? He’s on his 4th team. Four- different-teams-have seen this guy play and in spite of the fact that three of them blindfolded him and abandoned him in an alley to get him away from their team (I may be taking creative license here) a fourth team [the Oklahoma City Thunder] decided he still deserved another chance. Why is this? Because he’s 7′ 3″ and the NBA craves size like a duck craves bread crumbs.

However, your unique, marketable asset doesn’t need to be physical. The most readily apparent example of this in recent NBA history is the circus that was Linsanity.

LinsanityNY

Yes, that’s right… Jeremy Lin’s meteoric rise to basketball infamy in the purported “Mecca of Basketball,” Madison Square Garden, was so big it bumped a dictator, 2 of the remaining members of Bush’s Axis of Evil, Apple and its former frontman Steve Jobs off the cover of Time magazine. Now, on one hand this isn’t surprising at all. Jeremy Lin is a Taiwanese American, and as such is a member of an extremely fast growing demographic in the US. Moreover up until his early 20s he appeared to be following the stereotypical path of many Asian Americans… Smart kid, sprinkles in extracurriculars (in his case basketball) to make his college app competitive, goes to an Ivy League school (Harvard) and BOOM you’re well on your way to success in life. Except Lin’s path WASN’T this generic path. He went to Harvard on a basketball scholarship, and evidently had anything but the typical Asian-American college kid’s demeanor. He became a lightning rod for the Asian American community, especially young males hoping to break away from stereotypes plaguing the community. The kid walked, talked, and acted like he was born and raised in the hood. He had absorbed a lot of the components of “basketball culture” that exist in the US today, in spite of the fact that his demographic supposedly clashed with this culture. So this guy could definitely mobilize the ever growing and already massive Asian American community in the United States, and transplant this audience into the NBA world.

Perhaps more importantly, however, was the fact that he also energized the Chinese NBA fan community abroad. China LOVES the NBA and the NBA loves China’s money even more. However, after Yao Ming’s retirement the marketing aspects of the relationship took a step back. Enter Jeremy Lin. Sure he’s an American, but as any Asian American who has spent a lot of time in Asia will tell you, a lot of Asian’s accept anyone who “looks” Asian as native on site. This can actually be a problem as native Chinese or Japanese will get really frustrated when their Asian-American counterparts aren’t fluent in the language [Whereas caucasian Americans will be given more slack] BUT ANYWAY there was a marketing and fandom vacuum back in China, the NBA’s largest expanding market, and Jeremy Lin filled the gap perfectly.

Add up both these factors, PLUS the fact that Linsanity was occurring in New York City, and you have a marketing leviathan. Moreover, it should be no surprise to anyone that when the Knicks’ neurotic owner cut ties with Lin at the end of the season [out of pure pettiness] Houston (former team of Yao Ming, and therefore the most popular NBA team in China) brought Lin in to reap the PR benefits.

(Photo Credit - Andy Gary)

(Photo Credit – Andy Gary)

However, the more interesting part of this story is the question of Jeremy Lin’s talent. Jeremy Lin is simply an undersized shooting guard who has to play point guard because of his size. All this in spite of the fact that he can’t really run the point. He’s a scorer, not a distributor, and that’s fine. That’s part of what made Linsanity so exciting. It was his galaxy sized testicles with some of the big shots he would take [and make] against allegedly superior players.

However, anyone who watches basketball is aware that a guy can go on a hot streak. Usually that means within a single game, but there’s no reason a guy can’t get hot for a week, a month, whatever length of time. Jeremy Lin is an amazing story, but as far as the NBA talent metrics are concerned? The guy probably hovers right around average. On nights where he’s off he is atrocious and can single-handedly sink his team. On nights where he’s on he can single-handedly win the game like you saw above. But you could probably find 5,000 guys to give you what Lin gives you on the basketball court. A lot of times, in the NBA, the talent level is just so high and the number of roster spots is so limited (only 450 guys can be on NBA rosters at any given time. 30 teams, 15 spots per team… that is an incredibly small number for any career. Think about your job? How many people do that? I guarantee its not capped at 450.) that if you’re not an elite player you simply have to do something special off the court to earn your time on it.

This is what I’ve been thinking about in regards to Aaron Harrison. The BBN has been absolutely obsessed with the Harrison twins’ decision to turn pro or not this year. This issue has been particularly complicated because these guys are bothers, they are twins, and they are so close that they feel the need to make these decisions together. Now, I definitely don’t think that’s a bad thing, but it makes this issue  more muddled than it needs to be. If Andrew and Aaron weren’t twins, I think there would be no question that Andrew Harrison would turn pro and Aaron would come back. Andrew’s “unique aspect” that he would bring to the NBA would be his size. His abilities as a point guard definitely need work, but he’s young and that’s to be expected. However, there are very few 6’5″ point guards in the NBA. That size could be invaluable to a team on defense and it gives Andrew an advantage over any opposing point guard attempting to defend him.

(Photo Credit - Clay Jackson)

(Photo Credit – Clay Jackson)

Aaron though? The pro-basketball world is littered with 6’5″ shooting guards. Remember those 5,000 guys who can do exactly what Jeremy Lin does? Well those same 5,000 can do exactly what Aaron does on the court, and a team wouldn’t need to use a draft pick to get them. He would need to find a way to be like Lin, and market himself beyond his basketball skills. Aaron hit some insane circus shots for us. Aaron can DEFINITELY energize a fan base, and I think he can produce in the NBA at an adequate level. What I don’t know, however, is if this is enough to immediately energize marketing guys, and justify using him over the other, cheaper versions of him. I’m not sure he has one attribute which would get the dollar signs spinning in their eyes like Jeremy Lin does.

CalamityDollarSignEyes

With that in mind, if Aaron wasn’t Andrew’s brother it seems like he would definitely come back. That way he would have the option to learn how to play point guard in college (a difficult task, but at least POSSIBLE in college compared to the NBA where Rodney Stuckey will tell you its nearly impossible). If he were a point, he would have exactly the same value as Andrew and would be a lot more attractive to NBA teams. If he weren’t going to improve his on court stock and were going to try to leverage his marketability to earn a roster spot, the only thing I can really think of that he could use would be the fact that he has a twin in the league. For whatever reason fans get kind of excited about brothers and twins. The best example is the Morris twins in Phoenix right now, but people also get excited about the Lopez twins and the veritable cornucopia of basketball playing Plumlees, even though those guys don’t play on the same team. If there was some way that a team could bring in both Harrisons as a package deal they become immediately marketable. However, that would either mean one of them would need to drop to the second round (likely Aaron) where the contracts are not guaranteed, or it would mean they would need to go pro in different years (ie Andrew this year, Aaron next).

(Photo Credit - Clay Jackson)

(Photo Credit – Clay Jackson)

Either way it seems like the best thing for Aaron to do is to come back for one more year, maybe learn how to play point guard, or at the very least develop his skills more, leave the 2014 draft class (absolutely LOADED with guards … Dante Exum, Marcus Smart, Andrew Harrison, Tyler Ennis, Keith Appling, Gary Harris, Nik Stauskas… the list goes on for miles) and enter the 2015 class with far fewer guards, then he couldn’t help but improve his draft stock. This in turn would improve his chances of sticking in the league for a long time.

Now, this article is also a little too pessimistic. I think Aaron Harrison is REALLY good. Like 2 buzzer beating game winners good. And I think if he’s given a chance he’s going to stick in the NBA, and have a solid career. I simply worry about him getting a fair shot in the league. However, maybe he’s already done enough to make it happen. I know he’s certainly already done enough to be beloved by Kentucky fans forever, and I’m going to be happy for him and his brother no matter what decisions they make.

(Photo Credit - Andy Lyons)

(Photo Credit – Andy Lyons)

Living in a Gilded Age

(Kevin Jairaj USA TODAY Sports)

(Kevin Jairaj USA TODAY Sports)

First things first… I just wanted to say that I really wanted to prove the national media folks wrong with a title year from this crew. To take 7 freshmen and 2 sophomores (neither of whom were starting after the WCS injury) to a title would have emphatically ended the anti-Cal camp’s claim’s that Calipari’s approach cannot work. However, when I’m really honest with myself it becomes clear that these people will never see the truth no matter what Cal does, and I just need to learn and embrace that. Taking this crew to the championship game… and in truth simply getting them to the final four, should be enough to disprove every one of the Cal haters’ arguments.  This method works, every coach in the country would take these players if they could get them, and its not just Cal who does this anyway *cough cough* your beloved angel Coach K *cough cough*  But Cal is simply the best recruiter in the nation and the best at what he does. So it makes it easy for national media hacks [Charles Pierce, Pat Forde, Dan Dakich, Pete Thamel, Dana O’Neil] to single him and his players out as a scourge, devastating college basketball like the Four Horsemen of the apocalypse. Somehow they take innocent kids who are just making sensible, logical career decisions (Bill Gates dropped out of college and became a billionaire, I graduated and spend all my time writing blogs that noone except my girlfriend and her mom reads… sooooo…) and somehow claim that Cal is exploiting these kids like some kind of pimp. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Cal HELPS these kids do what they want to do, and they all love him for it.

(Mark Zerof, CatsPause.com)

(Mark Zerof, CatsPause.com)

BUT ANYWAY not only did Cal and his “one and done devils” pull off one of the most spectacular turn arounds and tournament runs I’ve ever seen, they did it by knocking off “Do It The Right Way” Golden Boys left and right. First and foremost was that undefeated Wichita State team, but they also knocked off Wisconsin just to make it to the title game. This strategy works, and when its on its game its much better than “doing it the right way” Also, how is this still a debate for the national media hacks? Didn’t Cal put this to bed in 2012 when HE WON A TITLE WITH FRESHMEN?!?! I will never begin to understand how these people can hold a grudge so firmly that they are willing to publicly embarrass themselves with these anti-Cal arguments. The Cal hate is wrong. It makes no sense and is completely illogical. If people admit they are being irrational and emotional when they direct their anger and ire toward Calipari, I’ll accept it. Theres no way I can change an irrational person’s mind. But when they claim to be using reason and common sense… I become infuriated. So after this run, I’m going to have to come to grips with the fact that what I believe is right regardless of what these irrational morons think.

This season ended in disappointment, but was in no way a failure. (Darrell Bird, CatsPause.com)

This season ended in disappointment, but was in no way a failure.The NCAA tournament is incredibly random. If it weren’t we would have four 1 seeds in the final four every year. A run to the title game is as impressive for this team as finishing it off with a win would have been. (Darrell Bird, CatsPause.com)

What happens when you bring NBA talent to the college level? You get success. Thats true for coaches (Kevin Ollie) and players (this entire Kentucky squad). They’re not evil because they’re better at what they’re trying to do, and the people who try to say that are the real ones at fault. Just because you bring NBA talent to a college level doesn’t make you a monster. Cal isn’t trying to spit in the face of the game, he’s just trying to help kids reach their dreams, while they help him reach his and the Kentucky fans as a collective reach ours. He’s not malicious and those kids are not demons. No more than Kevin Ollie (who will be in the NBA in the next couple years) is. Just being better than your peers is not evil. I really will never understand why people don’t accept this viewpoint.

For Kentucky fans, then, I just want to say that we’re living in a Golden Age of Kentucky basketball. I as a fan and maybe all Kentucky fans in general need to sit back and enjoy this. This has already been said ad naseum, but in 5 years at Kentucky we have seen 1 title, 2 title game appearances, 3 final fours, and an elite 8. Regardless of whether or not everyone wants to admit it, Cal and UK have been a perfect match and this has been a stellar run. I hope we can have another 5 years with identical results, even if that means another NIT loss (it won’t). Championships are hard to come by. Theres a reason why in 70 years of college basketball noone has won more than 11 titles. What Cal did in 5 would make him the greatest of all time if stretched over his entire career.

(Andy Lyons)

(Andy Lyons)

This is really important to remember because Kentucky fans get really upset with the one and done era too. They feel cheated that they don’t get to become truly attached to the players. For a lot of them this makes them lash out and become overly critical of players (this year it was the Harrisons in particular, most unfairly. Last year it was Archie Goodwin, the year before that it was Marquis Teague) They want a whole 4 year career out of these kids in the few months they get to see them play. This is unfair, but its the way things are going to be as long as we’re bringing the nation’s best talent to Kentucky (and as long as the NBA refuses to change their rule) so I just hope that Kentucky fans (most of whom already do this but there are the outliers) can take a step back, focus on what an amazing ride these guys just took us on, and what an amazing ride Cal has had us on for the last 5 years. I hope we can sit back, come together as a community to ignore the national hatred, and simply savor whatever time we have left with Cal and this era of complete dominance by Kentucky.