Darius Miller and Alex Poythress did not have the typical Wildcat careers in the John Calipari era. Both stayed and played for four years.
Miller, of course, came up under Billy Gillispie and was an outstanding product of the commonwealth, with a special combination of size and skills. But he did not have the NBA dazzle of Patrick Patterson or Jodie Meeks. So, by the time Calipari came in, Miller was a useful role player with a season under his belt.
He soon started on Cal’s first freshman-loaded team, when Darnell Dodson proved to be a disappointment. And then he started on Cal’s second freshman-loaded team, the one that went to the Final Four.
By his senior year, he brought a certain veteran’s poise to the group of freshmen and sophomores that won the national championship.
Poythress did have the NBA dazzle when he enrolled, but an out-of-control Archie Goodwin and an injured Nerlens Noel sank that freshman season. He came back, to play a reduced role on the Julius Randle-and-the-Harrisons team that returned to the Final Four. And he had one of the key lead roles in Cal’s big-screen production of “Platoon,” until he hurt his knee and was out for the season. (The common dogma in Big Blue Nation was that a healthy Poythress would have shut down Wisconsin’s comeback in the semi-finals and Kentucky would have completed an undefeated championship season two nights later.)
By Poythress’ senior year, he brought his own version of a veteran’s poise — but in this case, it wasn’t enough. There wasn’t enough talent around him, save the dynamic Tyler Ulis-Jamal Murray backcourt, and that team had an early tournament exit.
Why talk about these two at this time? Because I believe they, or players like them, are missing ingredients this year on what should be a much better team.
Calipari’s teams have not been without veteran participation. Josh Harrellson, Jarrod Polson, Jon Hood and, this year, Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis, all hung around long enough to become meaningful contributors. But they all worked their way up from the deep end of the bench, persevering as more-talented athletes came and went. (Hood is a special, and somewhat tragic, case. His unlimited promise was derailed early on by a severe knee injury.)
The problem was, none was ever more than a role player. Harrellson was the only one who became a starter, and that was only because Enes Kanter was declared ineligible.
Neither Hawkins nor Willis has the personality, nor the leadership, to demand excellence of his young teammates. They were never stars — they barely played — so they don’t have the résumé or stature to assert themselves. And that’s part of the problem. The cream keeps getting skimmed off the top.
We’re learning that freshmen — even Cal’s super freshmen — bring a set of issues. Some are simply not as good as advertised. It’s not just Skal Labissiere. This year, Sasha Killeya-Jones and Wenyan Gabriel were heralded as instant successes, just add water and stir. There have been so many reasons why neither one has become that. And there have been others.
Even before he went down, Nerlens Noel’s game proved to be one-dimensional. He could block shots. But his offensive skills were rudimentary.
James Young’s offensive skills were off the charts, but the rest of his game was — the rest of his game.
Skal. Young. Dodson. Stacey Poole. Willie Cauley-Stein. Kyle Wiltjer. Marcus Lee. Dakari Johnson. Isaiah Briscoe. Even the Harrisons. They were all freshmen who, truth be told, were disappointments.
Do you remember how freshman Terrence Jones was considered a disappointment in 2010-11, the target of Calipari’s season-long fury? Do you also remember that, as a freshman, Jones averaged 16 points and nine rebounds a game? Would you love to be getting that kind of production this year from freshman Bam Adebayo?
Cauley-Stein wasn’t much of a freshman. Not much of a sophomore, either. But by his junior year, he had learned and matured and became one of the best players in the nation.
What I’m saying is that Calipari’s freshmen-loaded teams bring a ton of excitement, but some are just simply not ready for the college level. And others need leavening and some growing up. They rarely get the chance, though, scooped immediately up into the NBA bucket, where they thrive or — in many cases — don’t. (Young. Teague. Johnson. Orton. Goodwin. It’s a painful litany.) But by then it’s too late. For them. For Kentucky.
Is it a surprise that Florida always seems to be around the top of the conference, with veteran players? They don’t have the high-powered recruiting classes Kentucky does, so their guys stick around for a few years and are able to play the kind of ball we witnessed last weekend.
Or, for a far more painful comparison, look at what Louisville is doing: Rick Pitino admitted a few weeks ago, talking about his relationship with Calipari, that they “don’t recruit the same players.”
No, but look at the arcs of the two teams this season. Louisville keeps moving up in the national rankings, even despite what should be a crippling set of injuries. A roster filled with nobody’s idea of lottery draft picks. But savvy, disciplined veteran play drilled into them by a savvy, veteran coach.
It’s not just attitude, or intelligence. It’s having been around a coach long enough to understand what he says, and why. It’s understanding how plays, or entire games, break down sometimes and what you have to do. It’s simply the maturity of being a few years older, understanding yourself, understanding the flow of the game, where to pass, when not to pass, how not to foul on defense, how to recognize an opponent’s moves and weaknesses, how to take advantage of a situation — how to not just play basketball.
It’s the acknowledgement that you play in a team concept, not in your own highlight reel.
Before I concede anything, the proof has always been in those three or four weeks of madness in March. Cal has a record of building toward that. Even the history of his teams’ battles with Florida proves that. Whenever Billy Donovan’s Gators dominated the conference, the Wildcats had a way of whittling down the difference by the end of the year.
So let’s not write off this Kentucky team yet. Maybe Briscoe can regain the veteran leadership he demonstrated early. But layups that repeatedly get blocked or hit the bottom of the backboard are not leadership. Slowing up the pace of the offense with aimless dribbling is not leadership.
Grabbing Malik Monk by the shirt and telling him to stop grinning at the end of a 22-point drubbing as the TV cameras send the image out across the national airwaves. That would be leadership.