He was a football coach, and a good one, but today we’ll take one of Jerry Claiborne’s favorite expressions and apply it to the basketball team at his alma mater.
The old “If’n Game,” he used to call it.
Coaches can’t afford to get caught up in the If’n Game; it would be a complete waste of their valuable time. But we can do it. The media? Lots of time to kill, especially these last few hours prior to Kentucky’s first-round (NO, THE FIRST FOUR ARE PLAY-IN GAMES) appearance in the 2014 NCAA tournament.
In what some Big Blue fans believe was the maddest of March moves, UK was assigned an eight seed in the Midwest Region. The Big Blue Nation was outraged. Local media were perplexed, given the quality of play the Cats showed in the Southeastern Conference tournament. National talking heads shrugged it off. Kentucky fell victim to its own losses and a weak SEC, they reasoned.
So now let’s play the If’n Game and put the Wildcats squarely in the middle. You might see that this season wasn’t so disappointing after all.
What if Kentucky had not been the pre-season number one pick in college basketball in most corners? What if, after winning the 2012 national championship, John Calipari hadn’t broached the subject of coaching an undefeated team some day? What if everybody, fans and media alike, had recognized this UK outfit as what it is: An incredibly talented, but phenomenally young basketball team, an actually allowed it time to develop?
And what if the Cats had taken care of business when they were supposed to?
If’n all that had happened, what would we be talking about today?
It says here, the Big Blue Nation would be smiling.
Minus the hype and the high expectations, and with a dose of common sense mixed in along with victories replacing losses in the South Carolina and (home) Arkansas games, the perception of Calipari’s club likely would be different. Kentucky might have been a six seed or higher, with a real chance at making a deep run in the tournament, perhaps to the Final Four.
Yes, the collection of signees Calipari assembled was impressive. But they were rookies and there were so, so many of them, all trying to assimilate at the same time.
Think about it: A team comprised primarily of eight freshmen and two sophomores, just 12 days into the regular season, squaring off with Michigan State – and losing by four points after spotting the Spartans a 15-point lead, and then fighting back to tie the game inside the final five minutes.
Less than three weeks later they would score a double-digit win over a Providence team that would go on to win the Big East tournament title. Five days after that, in ice-covered Arlington, Texas, the Wildcats would drop a close one to a veteran Baylor team, in a contest that was a one-point game in the final three minutes.
And then there was Chapel Hill.
Six weeks into the season, this collection of basketball babies paid a visit to one of the more intimidating places to play in all of college basketball and for 33 minutes, they had the wine-and-cheese crowd choking on Chablis and brie. They were worried. Kentucky had the lead with 14 minutes left, before succumbing to a flurry of turnovers and missed shots.
Then came the upset of their arch-rival, which happened to be ranked sixth in the country at the time. If their season hadn’t begun with crushing expectations, the Wildcats’ victory over Louisville would have resonated throughout the Nation for the rest of the season.
But shortly after that came the Southeastern Conference which, without having bounced a ball in a real game, the Cats had been predicted to win. Florida had other ideas. The veteran Gators not only slapped Kentucky back into place, they did it emphatically, by hanging a big zero in the SEC loss column.
The Wildcats did drop a half-dozen league games, probably three more than they should have. Kentucky lost a pair to an underachieving Arkansas squad and had that horrible setback at South Carolina.
Frustrating, because we all saw flashes of greatness, of what this team COULD be, whenever it learned how to execute sustain effort.
Minus those losses, you would have seen UK nestling into a much more comfortable line in your NCAA bracket, one that wouldn’t have it potentially playing a #1 seed in its second game, providing it gets past a dangerous opening opponent.
Of course, none of this happens in a vacuum. Fans and media members alike analyze, over-analyze, predict and project. High expectations are part of the baggage you inherit when you sign on to play for, or coach at, Kentucky.
But if you somehow could have stripped away all the pre-season hype, maybe reversed a couple of regular-season setbacks and let this talented collection of newbies find their way, how would you feel about their season, and the shot they’re about to take in the NCAA tournament?
The guess here is, you’d realize that what they accomplished with just a few months of polish, when most teams get two or three years, was impressive. But that’s the If’n Game for you. It has nothing to do with reality.
That comes crashing back Friday in St. Louis, at 9:40 p.m. It’ll be madness. In fact, it has been all year.
(Dick Gabriel is in his 25th season with the UK TV and Radio Networks, and can be heard on the Big Blue Insider Monday through Friday from 6-8 p.m. ET on 630 WLAP-AM and wlap.com.)