Yet there was also something different, something extremely out of character for Rupp Arena. In a gymnasium that usually sees enthusiasm that is only outweighed by confidence (or what other teams would call arrogance), a hint of desperation filled the air. More than one fan held a sign that said "I Believe," symbolizing a team that was not only not assured to win the game, but one that could even be deemed the underdog. You got the feeling that the fans had not only come to cheer on the Cats, but were going to try their hardest to will the team to victory.
Of course the victory did not happen and the fans' fears turned out to be well-placed as a Vanderbilt team that was itself off of its best game, arrived in Rupp Arena and did something it had not done in thirty years, conquer the Cats. Yet what was stunning to me was not that Kentucky lost, as Vanderbilt is a good team headed for the NCAA Tournament, but how a team filled with talented high school superstars has lost all of its confidence and has taken the mindset of the crowd....hoping, but not expecting, to win.
At the beginning of the season, the groundwork for this team's success was clear. First, Rajon Rondo had to emerge as a superstar, an unguardable player who would run the team's offense and score with the shot clock running down. Second, Patrick Sparks had to shoot well, thus allowing him to be a valuable member of the team despite his other limitations. And finally, a consistent, third scorer needed to emerge out of the trio of Rekalin Sims, Ramel Bradley and Joe Crawford, thus giving the other two guards much needed help.
At this point none of these things have happened. Sparks is in a dreadful shooting slump that suggests he has lost virtually all of his confidence. Sims, Bradley and Crawford have all had good performances, but have yet to develop any consistency and go long stretches where they are virtually invisible on the court. However, despite these problems, the true crux of the team's difficulties are found with issue one.
Every good team needs a leader and Rajon Rondo has simply not stepped into this task. Rajon has had great individual performances and has dazzled the fans with electrifying moves, but he has done virtually nothing to make his teammates better. A leader can be silent, in the mode of Tayshaun Prince, showcasing a strong work ethic and leading the team through his actions. Or he can be a positive talker in the mold of Chuck Hayes, building up his teammates through positive reinforcement and taking them as a group to heights that cannot be achieved individually.
However what the leader cannot be is a quiet, individualistic player with virtually no connection to the rest of the team. Because Rondo has not shown the ability to get past individual greatness of the type showcased by Dominique Wilkins into the realm of greatness that elevates a team to another level as showcased by Michael Jordan, this team is left without a leader. Teammates spend most of their time on the offensive end looking at each other, hoping that someone will do something positive. Tonight, many offensive possessions were spent praying that Randolph Morris could somehow put the ball in the basket and relieve the others of any responsibility.
Thus by the end of the night, any viewer of the proceedings could get the distinct feeling that the mood of the crowd, one that hope despite all reason, things would go well, had taken over the team. They all seemed to be hoping to win, although none believing that they would. What is frustrating for the Kentucky fan is that unlike in past years, there can't be a great deal of optimism that much will change. Maybe Patrick Sparks will shoot better....maybe Bobby Perry will make a layup....maybe Ramel Bradley will make fewer silly mistakes....maybe Rajon Rondo will be less selfish....maybe Woo wont foul every other second....maybe Sheray Thomas will develop a jumper....maybe Rekalin Sims will re-discover his offense. However the team has given no indication that these things will happen.
Whereas in past years, a viewer of Kentucky basketball could be fairly certain that at the end of the day, the team would reach its potential. However things just seem different with this group and the assured confidence that is such an ingrained part of being a Kentucky fan seems a bit misplaced. Thus now like so many other programs of lesser stature, all we are left with is hope. That is certainly a new feeling for the Big Blue Nation.