LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- They don't give trophies for playing the toughest schedule.
It was Hall of Famer George Raveling who said, "There are a lot of guys who played tough schedules who are working at Kmart."
You want to talk about a blue-light special?
It's fashionable to bemoan the month of mediocrity that has been the University of Kentucky's basketball schedule. It's not a slate you'd find sponsored by ResumeBuilder.com, particularly for NCAA Tournament purposes.
From Jan. 2 (Eastern Michigan, ranked No. 247) to Feb. 9 (Auburn, No. 166), the Wildcats will have played exactly two games against teams ranked in the top 90 nationally in Ken Pomeroy's computer model -- the model most respectful of the Wildcats' overall season, ranking them No. 19 nationally.
And it's not as if they're dominating even that dojo ("Seinfeld," Season 8, Episode 1). They needed overtime to win at Texas A&M. They hung on late to beat a woeful LSU squad. They pulled away from a good Ole Miss team, but lost to Alabama on the road.
On Monday, UK coach John Calipari said his team is soft, and has been in "a state of flux" all season. He's on the money. As you watch the Wildcats, you can see stretches in which they figure things out. Julius Mays will get it going defensively. Kyle Wiltjer has settled into a workable game on both ends. Archie Goodwin may be in the process of figuring things out.
And the truth of the matter is, playing some games like tonight's breather against South Carolina makes figuring things out a whole lot easier than grinding wins out against probable NCAA Tournament teams every week.
This team, if it were getting its tail kicked by top-notch competition, would be too busy struggling with losing to worry about developing toughness. It'll have to deal with all that eventually, but a gradual buildup isn't exactly the worst thing.
"We're just hanging on," Calipari said. "We're hanging on and we're not near our best. We're hanging on, and this is what happens when you have a young team. You look at numbers -- we have five guys in double figures and really six. We shoot a pretty good percentage. Defensively, we hold them to a pretty good percentage both in the three and the two. I mean, literally, like really good. And we got all young kids. Why are we turning it over? We're soft with the ball. So you just come down and throw it away. You don't have that toughness. But short of that, we've just got to become a better finishing team. We've got to become a better team when we're up 15 or 16. And that's all mindset. That's all that is."
I watched it with the University of Louisville football team this past season. It played nobody in the regular season. It struggled even with marginal teams. But through that, when the time came to play one of the nation's top teams, make all the excuses for Florida you want, but U of L handled the Gators in every sense. If you have talent, you have a shot. You just have to hang on and improve.
Still, the question hangs over this team: What happens when it faces somebody really good again? The Wildcats are about to find out when they visit Florida next week. Florida might well be the best team in the nation.
But that's the wrong question to ask about these Wildcats. The goal isn't beating Florida in February. The goal is to beat the good teams in March.
Two years ago, UK was 16-6 coming out of the first week of February. That team, despite its record, still was ranked in the top 10 by Pomeroy's system, and had some things this team lacks, including an NBA point guard, a good bit of experience and a lock-down defender on the perimeter.
Calipari got what he needed, in terms of evaluation, in early games against Duke and at Notre Dame. He got a bit of an update when his team went to Louisville. He'll get another status report against Florida.
In the end, you're not going to learn a whole lot about UK in games against teams like South Carolina or Auburn.
But the important thing isn't what we learn about UK in those games. The important thing is what UK's players learn from them.
The schedule, it turns out, matches UK's needs in this post-championship season. It's a bit short on tough tests, but it's providing plenty of study time, and has given a young Wildcats team its best shot at scoring big on the final exam.