The Rolls-Royce of college basketball has always been the Kentucky Wildcats. But with four consecutive years fielding an unranked team, losing to the # 205 RPI team in the nation at home, and likely to miss the NCAA tournament field for the first time in eighteen years, the "check engine" light is burning brightly.
Kentucky entered the game against Georgia last night celebrating Jared Carter, the sole UK senior on the team, and desperately needing their 20th win of the season to tread NCAA bubble talk water. They exited by losing to a team that had won only two of its last 15 outings, while losing their own 7th game of the last ten.
This Wildcat team has lost three consecutive games in arguably the most important stretch of the season. What's wrong?
One theory is that nothing's wrong. The team is as good as its players, and that former coach Tubby Smith left the cupboard bare.
While there can be no doubt that Smith's recruiting suffered after the 2004 # 1 recruiting class of Rajon Rondo, Joe Crawford, Randolph Morris and Ramel Bradley, does that explain losing to the worst team in the Southeastern Conference at home? Is the talent that bad?
The next theory dovetails with the first one. Perhaps the talent is good enough to win some of the games UK has lost, the theory goes, but not good enough to have much margin for error. And the mix of talent, the theory states, does not have enough upperclass experience in it to survive a loss of confidence or those moments requiring mental toughness.
Jodie Meeks is a national Player of the Year candidate. He is a junior, but played very little last year due to injuries. Patrick Patterson is UK's other All-SEC, potential All-American. But he's just a sophomore.
After those two players, you'll get arguments about the level of talent UK does have. But perhaps the next most talented player is freshman Darius Miller. And some of the most talented players after that would include freshman Deandre Liggins, or first-year JUCO Kevin Galloway. There is certainly some credence to be given to this theory, although like most theories, it probably doesn't explain it all.
Another theory is that the players have just quit on the coach, and lost the confidence in that coach. Does it appear that players are just going through the motions? How can one tell?
Is the March 4, 2009 version of the Kentucky Wildcats Rolls Royce substantially different from the January, 2009 version? The Rolls is sputtering along having lost seven of its last 10 games, while the December 7 - January 24th Wildcat machine won 12 of 13 games, with the only loss to likely # 1 seed Louisville, on the road--by three points. Cats were 16-4 and moving up the rankings. What has caused the Rolls to hit this rut?
The master mechanic for Kentucky athletics is Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart. Lead mechanic for the basketball team is head coach Billy Gillispie. Can these two uncover the code of the "check engine" light for UK basketball? Does this "check engine" light mean UK needs a tune-up, an oil change, or a new transmission? Are the UK master mechanic and lead mechanics sufficient to diagnose and treat the ailing Rolls?
Time will tell, of course. But will we first see the Rolls mired in a garage with its engine torn apart? Or are we at that point already? When you are driving your own car and the "check engine" light comes on, do you know if it's something minor--or something significant?
Next road test for the UK machine will be in Gainesville Saturday, March 7 at 2:00 p.m. against the Florida Gators, who are also fighting for NCAA at-large consideration.