CRAWFORD | Don't read too much into UK's NIT season - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Don't read too much into UK's NIT season

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Robert Morris was the United States' original bag man. If George Washington was the most powerful political and military leader of the colonies during the American Revolution, Morris was the most powerful financial leader.

He was a big-money booster, this Morris guy, made it rain for the revolution. Only two men scrawled their John Hancocks on the three most important U.S. founding documents -- the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation and U.S. Constitution. Hancock wasn't one of them. Robert Morris was.

This guy was money, and he didn't even know it. Or maybe he did. Either way, he is believed to be the first man to use the dollar sign symbol we use today -- $ -- in official documents.

Toward the end of the revolution, when the currency of the colonies had all but failed, Morris' personal credit was, according to biographer Charles Rappleye, the major American method of exchange. He smuggled gunpowder and weapons, supplied troops in the field.

He was, in fact, a hero. He also was, it turned out, a bit of a crook. History has judged his under-the-table dealings, and he even went bankrupt and spent several years near the end of his life in debtor's prison.

Life is like that. Sometimes you're riding high. Sometimes you hit the bottom.

Which brings us to the University of Kentucky men's basketball team. The Wildcats open play tonight in the National Invitation Tournament against the university in Pittsburgh that bears Morris' name. (Come on, now. If you're going to have to read an NIT column, you might as well get a little history lesson out of it.)

This time last season, UK was making history. The Wildcats were on their way to an NCAA championship, and everybody knew it. That they have followed that with a trip to the NIT has sparked a pretty rigorous round of recrimination.

In the modern media way, where every event is judged either as the culmination of a trend or the beginning of one, Calipari is facing the question of whether this season isn't a sign that stability amid a one-and-done culture may not be sustainable. Was last season the exception, or the rule?

In other words, in the same way last season's title was hailed as a ratification of the one-and-done way (it wasn't), this season's failure may be seen by some as a repudiation of it (it isn't.)

Everybody is reading something into this basketball season for UK. Here are some things I am NOT reading into it:

-- That success with one-and-dones can't be sustained. Success is tough to sustain under any kind of process. But UK is in the NIT not because it is a freshman-dominated team, but because the freshmen it has did not turn out to be as good as advertised.

Michigan has a freshman team. It starts three freshmen and a sophomore, and has done all right.

Among the outstanding stat categories measured by Ken Pomeroy on his site, kenpom.com, is a measurement of a team's experience. It is based on minutes played per class, to reach an average experience level for each team. Note, it's based on actual playing time, not just how many players from each class are on a roster.

Here's something that may surprise you. This season's UK team, from a numerical standpoint, is more experienced than last. Last year's team averaged 0.77 years (with 1.0 and over being a sophomore, 2.0 a junior, etc.) This season's team checks in at 0.91.

Where Calipari faces the most legitimate second guessing -- and he has publicly second-guessed himself -- is in building some kind of hedge to this kind of disappointing season. Not every team is going to be Final Four caliber. But even losing your best player and having a group of McDonald's All-Americans who aren't as good as you thought they were should not mean you go to Tennessee and lose by 30.

Expect Calipari to do a couple of things. First, by virtue of this season's struggles, he'll have more players back. Having a few quality guys stay for a second season helps. Second, I expect he'll go even harder after senior transfers. He missed on Alex Oriakhi, who wound up at Missouri last season, but those are the types of guys who could help. Julius Mays was one of them this season.

Something else I'm not reading into the season:

-- That Calipari did "his worst" coaching job. You are, as Calipari says, what your record says you are. So yes, Calipari takes the responsibility for this season. He does. It's on him. I'm not saying it isn't. I'm also saying this: He coached this team just as hard as he coached last season's. He ran similar drills, took similar approaches, told the same stories.

What works one year doesn't always work the next, and Calipari changed things up to try to find something that worked and, in the end, never did.

"I have no regrets because I tried everything," Calipari said.

Coaches at this level don't become idiots overnight. But you do a lot better job coaching, say, the power forward spot, if it's manned by Michael Kidd-Gilchrist as opposed to Alex Poythress.

Some will say that Calipari can't win without the best of the best players. Josh Harrellson, DeAndre Liggins, Darius Miller and a great many other players would disagree. He develops them as well as anybody, but usually not in one season. It takes time.

Coaches are like the best of us. Some games and seasons are better than others. The man won a national championship last season. He knows a little something about this whole deal.

You lose your best player, it's going to leave a mark. UK had some of its best wins without Nerlens Noel. But it had several losses without him that wouldn't have happened with him in the lineup.

That doesn't let Calipari off the hook. But even good coaches have bad seasons. One of Calipari's biggest mistakes was engaging in some pretty high-level bombast after last season. (It was one of the first things I wrote about for WDRB.com, here.)

Calipari continues to coach and recruit up in the stratosphere. But this season has rinsed the air of inevitability from his touch with NBA talent.

And a final thing I'm not reading in to UK's failure:

-- That this season is merely a one-year aberration. Maybe that's true, but I don't think you can say it just yet. The recruiting gurus thought this year's team was destined to be one of the top five in the nation based on projections of the incoming freshmen. They were wrong. Listening to them, and looking at Calipari's history, a lot of us expected the same thing. We were wrong.

Next year's group looks like the best in a very long time. But it's that same group of gurus touting it that were wrong last year. We'll see. You can't predict chemistry, dedication, work ethic, health of the players. You can't predict how players will react to the challenge of playing at UK, or how they'll mesh with guys coming back, or even who will be back.

With Calipari, there aren't only quite a few one-and-done players, but every season is one-and-done. You can't assume carryover. That's the case everywhere, but even more at UK, where the future these days is not defined by anyone on the current roster, but by guys who still haven't attended their senior proms.

The reasons for this season's struggles are pretty well established. Using them to read anything into next season's expectations, however, probably isn't wise.

Calipari still gets the benefit of the doubt. He also, for the first time in his UK tenure, gets a dose of doubt along with it.

Old Robert Morris could tell you, things can change in a hurry.

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