IRA COMBS: Cal's Boys Open Season Friday In Search of Title No. 9; Stoops Has Biggest Challenge of S
By Ira Combs
Tri State Sports Service Media Inc. For those BBN faithful who don’t have the luxury of attending many games at Rupp Arena, I’ll set the scene for you going into this Friday night’s season opener against mighty Grand Canyon (8:00 p.m., SEC Network). When the UK starting lineups are announced at the beginning of each game, the lights go out in Rupp Arena and the players are announced to a lot of fanfare along with indoor fireworks, etc. This year when that pre-game segment began for the Blue-White scrimmage and both exhibition games recently, a video tape of Andrew Harrison popped up on the large video jumbotron at Rupp Arena and the lead guard for the Cats this year simply said with a very serious and stern look on his face, “The story isn’t over." Now, if you’ve been in a cave for the last six to seven months, you wouldn't understand that quote but if you’re a loyal card-carrying member of BBN you know exactly what he meant. After a sluggish and somewhat disappointing regular season last year, Cal’s boys circled the wagons and charged through March Madness like a Gator does through the southern swamps gobbling up everything in its path until they ran into its new nemesis of recent years, the UConn Huskies, and finished one game short of NCAA title No. 9 for the historic program. So the stage is set for those Wildcats who decided to return to Rupp Arena for another season instead of testing the NBA waters. The new story to intertwine into this season is John Calipari’s new platoon system. With so many talented players returning to the roster, Cal has come up with a two-team platoon system of five players each playing in four- to six- minute intervals throughout the first half and most of the second half. Cal says only the players buying into the concept will make it work and so far they have. How long it will last into the season nobody knows. For the Blue-White scrimmage and two exhibition games, the platoon system has been made up mostly of (Towns – Poythress – Harrison Twins – Cauley-Stein) on the starting unit and (Ulis – Booker – Lyles – Lee – Johnson) on the second unit. Nine of the 10 players just mentioned were McDonald’s All-Americans coming out of high school and many well-respected college basketball gurus (Dick Vitale & Jay Bilas) have said the second unit could pull enough votes to be a Top 20 team, if not higher. In state players Dominique Hawkins from Madison Central High and Derek Willis (Bullitt East) are set to be the sixth man at their respective positions when the first player in one of the two-platoon systems gets into foul trouble or injured during a game. So there you have it, sports fans, a 12-member mega-talented roster of basketball players for John Calipari to keep happy along with BBN over the next four months until March Madness kicks in. And then the run for NCAA Title No. 9 hopefuly will begin with one of those four coveted No. 1 seeds in the first weekend of play at the Yum Center in Louisville and will culminate right up I-65 in Indianapolis for the Final Four weekend. I’ve searched and as astutely as possible for my trained eye evaluated this team from the baseline of Rupp Arena through the Blue-White scrimmage and two exhibition games and I can’t see any true weaknesses so I suggest you hang on through any bumps in the road and whatever you do don’t anybody jumping off the wagon this year. Hop on now. It's gonna be a sweet and exciting ride! Stoops and Assistants Have Lots Of Mental Work To Do Four weeks ago, the UK football team set at 5-1 and Mark Stoops was riding as high in the saddle as Roy Rogers ever did. If memory serves me right, Stoops remarked, “We’ve only just begun." Note to Coach Stoops: Be careful what you say, it could come back to haunt you. Four weeks and four consecutive losses later, the saddle has slipped and Stoops is clinging to stay on the horse. I’ll be the first to admit even though I picked the Cats to go 6-6 that there was some serious doubt at times even with a 2-0 start. Also, when I suggested UK would be 5-1 at the midseason break, I could still see some serious bumps in the road. The Florida and South Carolina games got everybody excited but it was a another classic case of some "Fool's Gold." Little did we know at the time how average those two teams were. Then our eyes got opened at LSU but we came back to the friendly confines of CWS and pumped a little juice back in our legs with a very competitive performance against No. 1 Miss. State. Then last Saturday against a good Georgia team, the wheels fell off and everything Mark Stoops had accomplished was put in the rear view mirror, if not buried, and you could sense the mindset of the players was wondering back to the past.
Now Stoops and his staff who have been so successful on the recruiting trails need to pull another rabbit out of their hat and do some serious coaching of the mental aspect with this young team to bring them back to the point where they were at mid season. This is not an easy challenge. Many coaches will tell you on any level, when you lose the players' competitiveness, it’s one thing but when you lose their heart, desire, and solid mental approach, it’s very difficult to get them back especially late in the season with two games left and both on the road. This is exactly where Stoops and his gridiron Cats are at. How they respond beginning this week in Knoxville (4:00 p.m., SEC Network) will come a long way in telling if they have enough in the tank left to get that sixth win for bowl eligibility. Both games at UT and U of L are winnable but the mindset must change first, then play on the field must make a turnaround back to the first half of the season. UT opened as a 6.5-point favorite Monday Morning in Vegas. I don’t know if that’s a slap at UT and its paltry season, or UK and how they’ve fallen apart. For more coverage of UK football & basketball as well as KHSAA football & basketball, go to www.combsbrothersonkysports.com. You can also follow Ira Combs’ new Twitter account at @combsbrothers5.