By LARRY VAUGHT
Is there a chance that this Kentucky basketball team simply is not tough enough overall to be a Final Four contender?
“It’s hard to say if a team is soft as a unit,” said FOX Sports college basketball analyst Larry Conley. “I think they have guys that play with skills. Their skills actually are pretty solid. Are they mean and nasty? No, as a team they are not but that does not mean they can not go out and win games. I’ve seen a lot of teams do that.
“It’s always nice to have one or two guys like that (mean and nasty) to whip a team into shape to make the team better. They just don’t have anybody like that. You can’t make people something they are not. They are what they are. They have ability. John (Calipari) and his staff knew what they were getting when they signed these players and they have gotten better from the first exhibition game until now. But they are not an overly physical team at this point.”
That amen you hear likely could be coming from Kentucky coach John Calipari. His teams normally are physically and mentally tough. He’s had players like Patrick Patterson, Demarcus Cousins, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Deandre Liggins at UK known for their physical toughness. He’s had others like Brandon Knight, John Wall, Eric Bledsoe and Anthony Davis that were mentally tough. But the coach has openly worried about this team.
“The tape doesn’t lie. You watch a little bit of this tape, and you’ll see,” Calipari said last week after UK beat Lipscomb. “Their big guy threw our big guys around. Then you talk about the guards at Mississippi. Wait till you see their big guys. The big guys at Tennessee, wait until you see their big guys. Their players are throwing us around is what happened.
“Just be more physical. You’ve got to bend over. You can’t stand straight up and down. You can’t accept that he’s going to beat you to the spot. All those things right now throughout their careers have been acceptable. It’s not anymore. Well, we’re trying to change habits that they’ve developed over a period of time.”
Conley said it’s also difficult to gauge UK’s toughness because they have played many “lambs for slaughter” this season.
“Maryland was okay, Duke is very good, Baylor is okay and Notre Dame is okay,” Conley said. “Now Louisville is really going to be a test (Dec. 29). I think Kentucky fans are frustrated with this team. Coming off a national championship year with a team that had tough guys and maybe better skill sets, it’s hard to be on this team.
“But look at the numbers. They are getting better. They defended much better the other night than they have all year. This is a not a team you are going to look at and say they do this really well, but they can do enough well to be a really good team. How good we won’t really know until the Louisville game and that’s when a lot of questions will get answered.”
What about Southeastern Conference play? Can Kentucky win a third SEC title in four years under Calipari?
“I had them and Florida at the top at the beginning of the year. Nothing has changed for me except that Missouri might be a little better than I thought,” Conley said “Tennessee getting (injured) Jeronne Maymon back could be the difference in winning or losing give games. If he is back, they will be hard to beat again. Those are the four best teams. Alabama has had a couple of key injuries. I am not sure if they can stay up there.
“The best darkhorse team is Ole Miss. (Marshall) Henderson out of junior college is averaging shooting 12 3’s a game. There are teams that don’t take that many. They are tough kids, too. They have about four kids that will take you to the woodshed. Texas A&M is good but not great. I am a little surprised at LSU but I know their talent and do not seeing them winning the league or Johnny Jones should get the best coaching job of the year.”
Since Kentucky has already lost three games and will be a decided underdog at Louisville, could there be a scenario where UK could find itself in danger of not making the NCAA Tournament?
“I could not see Kentucky not getting in the NCAA,” Conley said. “I still think they will win 22 to 26 games.
“The big thing right now is that they just don’t have that fire in their belly. It’s hard to put your finger on. I have seen Alex Poythress do things where you go, ‘Wow. Why doesn’t he do that every game?’ That lack of consistency is what frustrates John and all Kentucky fans. But they may get it one game and all of sudden they beat a really good team and say we are pretty good and just take off. I have seen it happen before and maybe it will happen to Kentucky this year.”