Friday, December 26, 2008

What Has Happened to Hoops in Bluegrass Country?

Big name coaches. Die hard fan bases. Talented rosters. Storied programs.

Memphis, Tennessee, Louisville, and Kentucky can claim all of the above. So why are these programs struggling this year?

Granted, considering these programs to be "struggling" is all relative. Three of the four are ranked in the top 25, and Kentucky is now 9-3 after dropping their first two games. Most schools would strangle their top boosters with a shoe lace to have that kind of national relevance. But I digress.

Back to the point. Why are these programs struggling?

It isn't due to a lack of talent. Pearl, Pitino, Calipari, Gillispie - all four of these names are synonymous with recruiting. Just look at this year's class. Combined, they landed nine of Rivals top 50 recruits for 2008 and have six of the Rivals top 50 committed for the class of 2009 (and there is a good chance they land two or three of the seven top 50 recruits still undecided).

Then is it due to a lack of coaching? Probably not. Rick Pitino has won a national title and reached four Final Fours. John Calipari has taken two different schools to the Final Four, including last year at Memphis. Bruce Pearl and Billy Gillispie are both highly regarded coaches who have turned around major conference schools (Pearl at Tennessee and Gillispie at Texas A&M).

It comes down to the make up of these rosters. Each of these four teams are loaded with athletes, loaded with size, and loaded with guys that have an incredible combination of both. This allows all four coaches to utilize tough defensive philosophies. Tennessee presses you the entire game, Kentucky plays a stingy man-to-man half court defense, and Memphis and Louisville are both somewhere in the middle.

While recruiting guys with length and athleticism is great defensively, it kills these teams on the offensive end. It is slightly different for each team, but the bottom line is that their rosters are essentially void of point guards and shooters.

Outside of maybe Bobby Maze, is their anyone on any of these rosters that you would trust to run your team? Wesley Witherspoon? Edgar Sosa? Maybe two years ago.

Likewise, outside of Jodie Meeks, is there anyone on any of these rosters that you cannot help off of a la a Lee Humphrey or a Shan Foster? Doneal Mack does not exactly strike fear in the hearts of Memphis opponents.

That is exactly the problem. These teams struggle to score in the half court. When you are a pressing team and cannot score, it means that you cannot get into your press (meaning you can't forces turnovers and get easy baskets). If you are a half court team, an inability to score puts that much more pressure of your defense, because every basket you give up becomes magnified.

There are ways to get around this. Memphis didn't have a shooter last year, but because they had a point guard (Derrick Rose) that could get into the paint, draw help, and dump the ball off to their numerous bigs for a lay-up they were able to succeed. This year, they have tried to put Tyreke Evans and Antonio Anderson into that role, but they are not able to do what Rose could (few are).

Louisville didn't have a point guard last year, but they had a big guy in David Padgett that they could run their offense through. This year they have Samardo Samuels, who is an excellent rebounder and scorer on the block, but he can't do what Padgett did.

I'm not saying that these aren't quality teams. All four are going to win a lot of games, should reach the NCAA tournament, and most likely will win some games they shouldn't win. If Meeks and Patrick Patterson both go for 30 (like they did against Tennessee State), Kentucky is going to be tough to beat. If Preston Knowles and Jerry Smith combine to go 6-9 from three (like they did against Ohio), it is going to open up a lot of space for Samuels and Earl Clark to operate inside.

It is a problem of consistency. The role player is becoming somewhat of a lost art in college basketball as more and more coaches are recruiting the athletic guys that are long, can run the floor, and jump out of the gym. While these athletes will get on Sportscenter's top 10 and make quite a few posters, it is the role players that will get your program piling up the wins.

But there is a reason coaches like Bo Ryan and John Beilein keep putting out winning teams. They have a group of guys that know their role on the team, perform that specific role well, and just know how to play basketball. When these guys all end up being NBA prospects, you run into a situation like Florida had, where they won back-to-back titles. Kansas last year was the same way. And when each role player ends up being a star-caliber player, you get a situation like you have with UNC, where people question whether the team will even lose a game.

The bottom line is that until these teams find a way to be able to score when their opponent's are able to set their defense, they are going to have a much more difficult time winning games.

Hope is not lost yet. Memphis has already gotten some help with the emergence of Roburt Sallie as a deep threat, and more help could be on the way when PG CJ Henry gets healthy. Louisville and Tennessee both have enough average shooters that they should be able to get by. Kentucky still has Meeks and Patterson, as potent of an inside-outside combo as there is in the country.

Unless these teams develop a more balanced attack, they are all a staunch defense, a great game plan, and a hot shooting night away from being upset. Temple, VMI, and Western Kentucky can all attest to that fact.

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