Goals for 'players first' UK program need to come in proper order

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Three losses that could have been wins. Three losses that, if not for a few missed free throws here and there, or a few less turnovers, might have been reversed. Three losses that exposed a young team as being something that was obvious: young.

And yet, some basketball observers now are studying the 2013-14 Kentucky Wildcats with furrowed brow. Isn’t this the team that sparked pre-season debate over the possibility of 40-0? Not impregnable? What’s wrong?

Answer: nothing that hard work can’t repair. But as these young players are constantly reminded, it ain’t easy. In fact, they heard it before they ever reached campus.

Some time after each member of this “greatest recruiting class ever” committed to UK, they all mentioned that John Calipari had told them the scholarship comes with a warning, that what lies ahead of them will be the toughest endeavor they’ve ever experienced.

It’s the least he could do, for it’s Calipari who has branded the Kentucky program, and constantly reminds us, as “players first.” He talks often and openly about helping families, and players reaching their dreams. And he manages to do it without speaking those three letters: N, B, and A.

So you have to wonder how difficult it really is for a teenager who, were it not for the one-and-done rule, might never have set foot in Lexington except, perhaps, on a going-through-the-motions recruiting visit before holding the obligatory news conference to announce he would “follow my dream” straight from high school to the NBA draft.

It has to be tough to keep your nose pointed directly to the matter at hand, which is learning to play offense and (especially) defense the way Calipari wants, no, NEEDS it played in order for this callow group to make a run at the Final Four.

Terrence Jones had the same plan. He would zip into Lexington, be a part of a team that scores the big hardware, and then book for the League. Simple as that. Only, it wasn’t. He struggled. His team struggled. And then, thanks to a 10-game winning streak at the perfect time, blasted its way to the Final Four.

But that wasn’t enough. Jones, who would have made serious bank had he left for the NBA draft, came back for his sophomore season at Kentucky, saying he wanted to win a national championship. Which, of course, he did, before moving on.

Jones, now with the Houston Rockets, had a goal for his college career, and he realized it. Apparently, spending a few months in college before getting paid just wasn’t enough. The current freshmen, who want to be where Jones is now, have their eye on the prize. Question is, which prize? Draft pick or NCAA championship? It IS possible to attain both.

How tough must it be to set up camp in a place you plan to stay for less than a year, before moving on to untold riches and the glamorous life you’ve dreamed about, since the moment you believed it possible.

Now, imagine being John Calipari, who pledged to help each and every one of them reach that destination – but not without an enormous amount of sweat equity, built up in Lexington, Ky.

This is not to beg sympathy or understanding. They all know why they’re here. They know about the Nation, and all the crazy expectations. That’s one of the reasons they signed, or so they say. The fans, they tell us, are incredible here. And they are. But they’re a constant, vocal reminder of the matter at hand, and that’s keeping UK basketball elite.

It dipped into the (ugh) level of the common programs when it was under previous management (see Gillispie, Billy) before rising to glorious heights for three straight seasons under Calipari, only to plummet back to the dregs last season. Robert Morris, you’re welcome.

This recruiting class would put it, literally, back on top. At least, that was the plan and it’s still intact. Or at least, it can be. It’s up to these youngsters to grow up quickly and make it happen.

Because of Calipari’s recruiting bonanza last summer, this year’s team constantly is being compared to the 2012 NCAA champions because, naturally, that’s the goal. And that’s probably unfair. That team featured the future numbers one AND two picks in the draft. Anthony Davis was a once-in-a-decade kind of game-changing defensive presence. And Michael Kidd-Gilchrist had the heart of a samurai warrior.

This team, for all its five-star players, has neither. Nor does it have three upper-classmen in its top six rotation, such as Jones, Doron Lamb and Darius Miller.

We’d be better off holding this team to the standard set by the preceding UK ballclub, the one that crashed the Final Four by spilling both Ohio State and North Carolina, when losses in either game would have surprised no one. That team started three freshmen but also two juniors – Miller, and DeAndre Liggins (the kind of defensive stopper this current team sorely lacks).

Calpari has compared his current squad to THAT one as well, reminding that two years ago, the Wildcats dropped close game after close game, just as this one has, playing just well enough to hang in there, but betraying itself with three or four shoddy minutes, or missed free throws. Those Wildcats figured it out just in time.

The guys wearing the jerseys today have a similar opportunity. The question is, can they forget about, for the time being, hearing their name called in June, so they can be at their best as a team in March?

(Dick Gabriel is in his 24th 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.)

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