Around this time every year the ‘little boys’ of college basketball dominate the television. Conference championship games provide the best win or go home atmosphere before the actual NCAA Tournament. The beauty behind the win or go home atmosphere is the simplicity surrounding it. Win or go home. Yes, it is just that simple.
The coaching philosophy you hear from top to bottom, 6′ goal kindergarten basketball to NBA professional basketball is K.I.S.S. Keep-It-Simple-Stupid. Keeping it simple does not seem to be a theory floating around the Kentucky basketball locker room. Substitution patterns and playing time have been far from simple. A scattered substitution pattern in December is one thing but by February and especially March the guys that are going to play need to know they are going to play. Keeping it simple does not mean simple game plans or just cutting players loose to play backyard basketball. At the collegiate level game plans and systems are often times complicated which is why other parts of the game need to be simple.
Here are two ways for Kentucky basketball to simplify things:
Shoot it when you are open. The guards and wings (Miller, Porter, Liggins, Galloway) besides Meeks, have one thing in common….a fear of shooting the basketball. Their jump shots are never in rhythm because they never know if they should shoot it, drive it, feed Patterson or wait for Meeks. Nobody can shoot without confidence. It is a long basketball year, giving players offensive freedom in December will have its rewards in March (see Pitino’s Louisville teams). If by February there are still guys who have trouble shooting the basketball, play someone else or hit the recruiting trail. It is D-I college basketball, having a team full of guys who can’t score from the perimeter is a direct reflection of poor recruiting.
When Tubby was in control it was very apparent that offensive freedom was at a premium. Offensive freedom was strangled year after year until seniors were given the ‘he could shoot in high school but I don’t know what happened to him in college’ label. When you defend so well that most teams never shoot until the shot clock has almost expired it means two things; you play great defense without creating easy opportunities to score and you essentially cut the game in half which limits the chances you have to score. This was in reference to Tubby Smith coached basketball teams but the 2008-09 Gillispie coached team meets many of the same qualities minus the exceptional defense.
Enjoy, it is supposed to be fun. At the collegiate level, especially at a place like Kentucky, playing basketball can feel more like a punishing job rather than a sport. The extensive media coverage and fan involvement rivals no program in the country. If you have no idea what I am talking about listen to a call in radio show about Kentucky basketball and take note of how many start something like this, “Well, I’m no coach but….” If you are going to keep count, this article can be number one on your list. The high volume of media and fan involvement can often time remove much of the fun that comes with playing. There is no way to avoid such media scrutiny when playing at Kentucky. Some portion of the game must be fun.
No one enjoys losing, losing is no fun but even the Kentucky wins this year came with complaints. The only night the Kentucky players seemed to really be having fun on the floor was in Knoxville when Meeks went for 54. It took a scoring masterpiece to get Kentucky players smiling during the game. There are no smiles anymore just slumped shoulders and long faces. There is no substitute for winning or playing well but even in the moments when Kentucky seems to be playing fairly well (LSU, Tennessee, @ Arkansas) smiles are hard to come by. The attitude within the program needs to be lighter, more energetic and more fun. Whatever is being tried in the locker room or in practice is, obviously, not working. Perhaps the coaching staff has tried to lighten the mood but that attitude has not transferred from the practice floor to game day. Smiles and pats on the back from the coaching staff can go a long way to making the experience a fun one.
Watching teams like Radford and VCU earn their way into the NCAA tournament in a win or go home game is a reminder of how great and simple basketball can be. Kentucky is searching for that greatness and the answer they are looking for may be simple.
The beauty behind basketball is the simplicity surrounding it. Enjoy it. Yes, it is that simple.