Coaches try to shield their teams from a heavy workload this time of year. Final exams are important and stressful, especially near the Christmas rush and the distractions (and excitements) that are part of the holiday season. John Calipari has managed to give his team a schedule which will not dump too much information too soon on a roster primarily comprised of underclassmen.
Kentucky's regular football season is over, but Kentucky basketball is essentially playing a football season of its own at this point. The Wildcats played on Saturday, December 2, and then played their next game on Saturday, Dec. 9. Their next game will be on Saturday the 16th, and after that on Saturday the 23rd. Only when they get to the week after Christmas Day will they play two games in a three- or four-day window, and by that point, the SEC season will have started (on New Year's Eve against Georgia).
The good news for national college basketball observers is that Kentucky's schedule will begin to get tougher, revealing more about the Wildcats' chops and what makes them tick. The good news for Calipari is that he has a lot of time -- for two and a half more weeks -- to educate his players without the constant pressure of needing to prepare for the next game or the next opponent. He can slowly dole out perspective, motivation, technical nuances, information on game situations, and other tools to prepare his players on what remains ahead. The lessons won't be absorbed or applied with great speed or efficiency, but they don't have to take root right away. As long as they gradually sink in as the season moves along, this team will get a high seed in March and -- most important of all -- be a threat when the moment matters most.
What about the good news for Kentucky fans? That exists too... and it emerged in the (Saturday) game of the week against Monmouth in Madison Square Garden in New York.
Basketball fans rightly annoyed by the fact that ESPNU talked about the New York Yankees for large portions of the first half were able to settle in and enjoy a highly cohesive performance by Kentucky. The Wildcats purred for 30 minutes and were able to put their car on cruise control in the final 10 minutes. They didn't play a perfect game, but they largely played very well. They displayed good chemistry, but they made enough mistakes that Calipari has reason to get after them in the film room and on the practice court. They worked hard, but were able to play a lot of garbage-time minutes to limit stress and strain on the starters.
It was an ideal December 9 game -- never in danger of turning into a contest, marked by a combination of focused effort and youthful carelessness in a way which gave the coaching staff confidence in the future but enough teaching material for the next game. The rout of Monmouth offered something of value for the players (an easy win), coaches (teachable moments), and fans (a highly entertaining and dominant performance).
It needs to be said up front that the Monmouth teams the past two seasons which were generally formidable -- and offered a reason to be taken seriously as NCAA Tournament threats -- are not evoked by this season's team. The Hawks entered this game having struggled, falling multiple games under .500 and lacking the balanced, dynamic scoring of their immediate predecessors. Monmouth did not represent the same challenge it would have been 12 or 24 months ago. It's worth keeping that point in mind.
Yet, one must also absorb the point that this has already been a very chaotic season in ways that -- even for an always-volatile sport such as college basketball -- are unusual.
Kansas lost twice in a week, once at Phog Allen Fieldhouse and both times to Pac-12 teams. Florida lost twice in the same week, including a buy game against small-conference Loyola of Illinois. Arizona lost three games in one week. Teams are encountering rough three-game sequences, not merely individual bad days at the office. Teams are going from the top five to outside the top 20 or 25 within a five- or six-day stretch. Given all the weirdness of the season -- Arizona State (!) has an argument to make as the No. 1 team in the country, and TCU is unbeaten with an increasingly strong national resume -- taking care of business in December is not an automatic thing for any team in America.
Kentucky's victory over Monmouth won't be remembered as a defining moment in the season, but it was a lot more focused and sharp than a lot of people had a right to expect. The first and most pervasive reality of this game was how well the ball snapped in Kentucky's halfcourt sets. Passes popped from one player to another, embodying the height of symphonic, integrated movement this sport is supposed to create at its best. Coaches will always emphasize the need for the ball to move faster than a defense's rotations. Kentucky realized that goal for most of this contest -- this kind of ball movement and flowing, blended offense enabled P.J. Washington to produce a perfect first half in which all 11 of his shots (combining field goals and free throws) went through the net.
This truly was a game in which Kentucky's lineup was set up to succeed... because players constantly helped their teammates within a coherent plan and a focused approach to attacking the basket whenever the defense was slow-footed.
The brilliance of Kentucky's offense was highlighted by a few brief periods of contrast. Chiefly, the Wildcats -- so good at passing the rock to reach other -- occasionally lapsed into sequences in which guards went one-on-one and tried to dribble against defenses. Individual forays with the dribble turned into solo-flying adventures which robbed the offense of its coherence. However, after two or three of these hero-ball sequences, Kentucky was able to get back to cohesive offensive sets in which spacing and ball reversals regularly created great shots. The lapses Kentucky experienced on offense were no longer or larger than UK's stumbles on defense. In a few pockets of play, Kentucky lost track of Monmouth's three-point shooters, but when the Cats wobbled, they similarly got back on the beam, just as they had done on offense. Their ability to regroup on defense was similar.
No, this was not a centerpiece game of Kentucky's season, but a physically fresh team also looked mentally refreshed and fully invested in the task at hand.
The grueling part of the schedule is still three weeks away, but if one wants good habits to be cultivated, Kentucky is certainly moving in the right direction, even though games are only every Saturday and the level of competition has not yet risen to a high level.
John Calipari is doing what he can. We'll have to wait and see how much he'll need to do in the coming weeks.