Donald Rumsfeld infamously said, "You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time."
That memorable remark lends insight into Kentucky basketball after two close games against teams from the state of Alabama, one won and one lost. The Wildcats ran out of steam down the stretch at Auburn but then snapped their four-game losing streak by thumping Alabama on the glass in Rupp Arena.
The hope of a huge shooting day from Kevin Knox will continue to animate Kentucky's highest hopes and aspirations, but hope has to coexist with cold and clear-eyed realism. Being sober and realistic, Kentucky now knows what kind of team it must bring to the coming weeks and, ultimately, the 2018 NCAA Tournament. No one is helped by trying to imagine a team other than the one Kentucky has become in the past week. The template for March Madness has fundamentally been established.
Whether shots go in is not entirely under a team's control. Yes, a basketball team always wants to get layups or dunks... and I always want to win the Powerball lottery, and my friend down the street with no experience in politics wants to be President of the United States in 2021. Just because human beings want something doesn't mean they will get it. Kentucky can't fully control whether shots drop, and at this point, it can't control the reality that Hamidou Diallo has not evolved this year and will not go to the NBA in 2018. Diallo cannot consistently beat defenders off the dribble and pry open the kinds of high-quality shot opportunities which will enable the offense to function at a much more elevated level. Kentucky is "Ken-stucky," limited in what it can do at the offensive end of the floor. There is no point in trying to deny or ignore that reality. It just IS, and the great thing about this past week for the Wildcats is that they seem to have begun to understand this.
Shots aren't entirely controllable. Similarly, recruiting freshmen and then rolling with them during a college basketball season -- the John Calipari Way -- represent a highly volatile process a coach might not be able to fully control. Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns will come along once every few years, but they hardly guarantee that the next big men or the next roster will have freshmen who will play and respond at the same exalted plane of brilliance.
Calipari can't control how skilled his players are at this stage in their development, so the only thing he and his players can control at this point is their effort.
They can defend and be in the right spots. They can grab more 50-50 balls and create more deflections. They can pound the backboard and dominate on the glass, as they did against Alabama, an opponent which relies on its defensive toughness and physicality to win games.
Kentucky can't control its shooting percentage or talent level, but it can work like hell on every possession and get into a rock fight, dragging opposing offenses into the mud and creating close games which come down to one or two possessions. That is Kentucky's path. That is Big Blue's road to NCAA Tournament success.
Kentucky won't win multiple 90-85 games in March. It might win one -- the one game in which Knox goes off for 35 points on 8-of-11 from three-point range -- but the SEC season has shown that Knox knockout punches are not readily repeatable. Kentucky will need to win one such game to get to the Final Four, but it will have to collect the other three victories with bare-knuckle, Tasmanian Devil tenacity.
If offense is a profound weakness for this team, well, dammit, win with defense and hustle plays. Smother the opposition. Grab the loose balls. Win more possessions. Don't commit turnovers or take shots with poor floor balance which lead to runouts and easy baskets for opponents. Shorten games. Reduce opponents' margin for error. Get into a 60-60 slugfest in the final minute. Get the one stop, one board, and one bucket needed to win a squeaker.
That is the path.
It isn't comfortable. It doesn't inspire tremendous confidence. It doesn't involve a lot of margin for Big Blue... but it is the realistic route to San Antonio, if one is to choose a way to the Alamo City.
The point of encouragement: After this past week, it seems not merely realistic, but matter-of-factly logical, to think that Kentucky can roll up its sleeves (metaphorically, of course) and play brawny basketball. It might not be pretty to look at, but hey, it's how South Carolina -- seeded seventh -- tore down Baylor and Florida in the East Regional in New York last March. It's how Bo Ryan's older Wisconsin teams and Steve Fisher's San Diego State teams made Sweet 16s. (Ryan's Wisconsin program graduated to the Final Four in 2014 and 2015 because of added skill players, but in previous years, the Badgers were still able to make Sweet 16s on the basis of their defense and rebounding.)
Yes, the one big Kevin Knox game will need to be a part of a Big Blue Final Four run cut from 2014's cloth, but for the most part, Kentucky has to fight and scramble like there's no tomorrow if it wants to realize its foremost aspirations.
This past week removed all doubt about the matter... if there was any doubt left to confront.