Coming into the game, I spoke with a long-time member of the Kentucky media who told me that he could not help but feel a sense of dread about the upcoming season. "This is a team that has the ability to throw out a real clunker," he said, "if they are not careful in the coming weeks, there will be a game where this team gets flat out embarrassed." Unfortunately, the Cats did not have to wait long to make that premonition a reality. Looking flustered on defense, disoriented on offense and anemic in their shooting, the Wildcats produced a performance that is as discomforting for the future as it is for the present.
We all knew that the Wildcats had weaknesses coming into the season. Newspapers, message boards and radio talk shows filled with discussions of the inability of our point guard to shoot, our shooting guard to drive and our centers to walk and chew gum. Questions arose as to where our offensive production would come from and whether a true "go to" guy existed when the inevitable close games arose throughout the season. However even among the most pessimistic of Kentucky fans, a group for whom life must produce very little joy, there was a sense that this team had the potential to be great. Now after nine games, the list of people outside of the player's families who believe this team to be great are so few that they make viewers of the new Martha Stewart show seem plentiful.
Indiana exposed the weaknesses of the Cats at every position. They showed that Rajon Rondo continues to be a point guard who struggles to contribute in the half-court set; Patrick Sparks has little ability to create his own shot; Joe Crawford is timid at best and terrified at worst; Rekalin Sims and Shagari Alleyne are blessed with athletic limitations; Sheray Thomas is not the same player since his illness; Bobby Perry is cursed with an inability to make the important play; Lukask Obrzut is a hustler who cannot have a game go his way; and Ramel Bradley does not understand the difference between a good and bad shot. More importantly, the Hoosiers showed that this is a team that is limited in an area in which Tubby Smith teams always excel....the heart. Never has a Kentucky team seemed so disinterested and unjustifiably impressed with themselves. Indiana proved that, at least as it stands today, Kentucky is completely overrated.
What is most frustrating about this performance is how despondent it should leave the Kentucky faithful. Unlike in previous slow starts, when various problems could be excused for inexperience or bad luck, the difficulties that plague this team do not seem easily remedied. Does anyone really believe that all of a sudden the Cats will develop a Kelenna Azubuike-like scorer who can take the ball to the basket and use his strength to finish the play? Does anyone really believe that Kentucky will receive any help on the glass from its undersized power forwards who suffer from slow reaction time and athletic limitations? And does anyone, even the most optimistic coiner of the phrase "Shaggy and Scooby Woo" really believe that the Cats will receive play from the center position that can even be classified as mediocre?
No, for the first time in the Tubby Smith era, things truly do seem dire. And I know, the national media will harp on the Kentucky fanbase for its gloom and despair attitude and the apocalyptic way that it always assumes the worst outcome. However while this criticism may have had resonance in the past, this time it is off the mark. Anyone who watched this game cannot make a rational argument that this team is just a step or two away from turning their season around. As Rajon Rondo said after the game, "no one can be over-confident after today."
I have time after time repeated to Kentucky fans the mantra that has become a staple of Decembers under Tubby Smith... "be patient, it will all work out." And year after year it has worked out. Early losses to Louisville have begat national championships and number one overall NCAA Tournament seeds. Embarrassing defeats to Virginia have spelled SEC regular season and tournament titles. This time I am not so sure. This Kentucky squad looks like a team without a future. Even the ever-optimistic Tubby Smith had a resigned look of displeasure on his face in his post-game remarks which seemed to suggest that the worst is still yet to come.
It may very well be the case that we will see a remarkable reversal in the coming weeks and Tubby Smith will be able to create yet another magical rebirth of a left-for-dead Kentucky team. There could be future victories over traditional powers such as Louisville and Kansas, continued SEC domination against the usual foes and a "second half against Vanderbilt in 2003-like" moment that turns this team into a dominating force. Or it could be that the negative feelings left coming out of this game are completely justified. This Kentucky team may be just as bad as it looked and it is that reality that this Saturday in Indianapolis may have forced the Big Blue Nation to confront.