Blogger Spotlight: A Sea of Blue talks Kentucky, Calipari and freshmen

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Few college basketball programs can rival Kentucky.

Whether it’s tradition, devoted fans or media attention, the Big Blue Nation lives and dies with its Wildcats. That’s why Kentucky basketball is now 24/7, making it ideal for a well-run blog.

And that’s certainly A Sea of Blue, SB Nation’s Kentucky blog. Fans flock to it for stories, analysis, rumors, stats and chatting about their beloved ‘Cats. So I chatted with its managing editor, Glenn Logan, about all things Kentucky in this week’s Blogger Spotlight.

Q: Did last year’s freshman crop spoil you for this season? Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb are as good as any freshmen in the country and are actually putting up better stats than UK’s freshmen last year. Yet the team doesn’t have the panache of a year ago. Or are they just missing a Patrick Patterson?

A: The answer to this question is complex.  A lot of people in the Big Blue Nation have reservations about young, high-turnover-to-the-NBA teams.  Last year’s team wasn’t just a unique mix of talent, but also the way they played and they way they wore their hearts on their sleeves really enchanted Kentucky basketball fans.  Wildcat partisans still haven’t forgotten Wall’s megawatt smile, or Cousins surly toughness on court that so contrasted with his gentle goofiness off it.

It isn’t just the skills we miss.  It is the naked joy of the game that they showed so often on and off the court.  That’s movie-like, and it isn’t easy to get over.  UK fans do undoubtedly miss Patterson, but what they also miss all the personality that last year’s team had.

This year the young players are much more serious and less demonstrative about their play, which is arguably a reason for their better statistics.  Knight, Jones & Co. don’t scare opponents with either their sick athleticism a la Wall, their beastly size and take-no-prisoners demeanor a la Cousins, or the chiseled body of a Patterson.  This year’s Kentucky team is cerebral, sharper in execution and less reliant on athleticism to make up for mistakes, not to mention much, much better shooters from the perimeter.  The 2011 team, in other words, is “boring” by comparison, even if their numbers are actually better.  Fewer Kentucky fans are as highly invested emotionally, and so that’s why we see the buzz at lower levels around here.

Q: Is John Calipari the ideal coach for Kentucky? He’s media friendly, embraces the Big Blue Nation and wins a lot of games. What could be better

A: In many ways, Calipari is the ideal coach for Kentucky.  He gets the tradition, he gets the fan support, and he understands the need to feed that beast.  With that said, Calipari isn’t a guy who has been around the Kentucky program all his life, so there is a segment of the Big Blue Nation that sees him as an outsider, much as they saw Pitino. 

Championships will go a long way toward alleviating this provincial attitude, but as with Rick Pitino be will take a long time, if ever, before Calipari becomes “one of us” to every Kentucky fan.  Unlike Pitino, Calipari does not surround himself in the New England image and a constant reminder of his Catholicism by having a priest present on the bench at games, or constant appearances on TV and radio with other big city “goodfellas” from his youth that Pitino employed to remind Kentucky fans he wasn’t from here.  In retrospect, it was really a snobbish form of urbanity and a bit of a poke at the more rural Kentucky fans.  Calipari has no use for that sort of display.

Instead, Coach Cal has, at least externally, embraced the more pastoral nature of the Bluegrass and made an effort not only to integrate himself into the community and culture, but to constantly reach out to all regions of Kentucky, not just the population centers.  Pitino’s tendency was to confine himself to his comfort zones in Lexington and Louisville, while Tubby Smith and Billy Gillispie disliked having to engage the fans any more than necessary.  This sincere effort has been a big part of why the Big Blue Nation has embraced Calipari — that, and winning basketball games.

Q: The player exodus after last season prompted critics to rip Calipari for bringing in so many one-and-done players. That’ll likely be true after this season and next, when another top-rated recruiting class arrives in Lexington. That overlooks the fact that talented freshmen usually result in a talented, entertaining team. So. What’s your ideal player mix for the ‘Cats?

A: Kentucky fans have reservations about the “one and done” culture that Calipari has brought to Kentucky, largely because our best teams, for decades, have been upperclasmen-dominated with a few talented youngsters sprinkled in.  The “new reality” of college basketball that Calipari embraced late in his Memphis tenure is very much alien to Kentucky fans, even though many are still vexed by Tubby Smith’s strategy to produce older teams that were grown in his system — a strategy that ultimately failed against the new reality that Calipari embraced, and brought with him to the Commonwealth.

Then there is the constant loathing from inside and outside the sports media.  For the press, there are two factors at work as far as Kentucky is concerned. One is a desire to see Calipari’s one-and-done strategy fail.  Many sports media professionals are invested in the idea that it’s better for young players to pass up millions in the draft to stay in college, even though studies have revealed the folly of this strategy.  This banality is often on display in the “inexperienced teams don’t win championships” platitude.  Whatever one thinks of the merits of that theory, it is largely untested at Kentucky’s level of talent.

To be fair (or perhaps, even more unfair depending on your viewpoint), the sports media gets this perception more or less honestly.  Sportswriters are constantly inundated with the “academics first” argument by educators and administrators in colleges.  These smart people, even after years of worldly experience, still look down on “jocks” as inferiors both intellectually and in value to society.  They tut-tut a player’s desire to play professional sports as an unworthy career goal, as if a four year degree in accountancy or even pre-law would ever earn more money or provide a person with more opportunity to make a difference in society. 

Calipari plays the role of Lucifer in this narrative, unabashedly tempting gifted players quickly through the NCAA system and out to the pros.  The NCAA itself has become such remarkable study in hubris and condescension on this point that it has, perhaps as much as the seemingly inconsistent player eligibility rulings coming down from on high in Indianapolis, soured many sports fans on the organization.  I think that’s a shame, and I really do wish the NCAA would recognize that athletics is as valuable a profession as any academic pursuit, and it’s way past time we stop applauding geniuses for leaving college early to found Microsoft or Facebook while shaking our heads in faux disdain when gifted athletes do the same thing for the same reasons — namely, filthy lucre.

The second is an unfortunate, echo chamber-driven perception that Calipari is guilty of NCAA rules wrongdoing prior to and during his tenure at Kentucky.  There is no factual support for this myopia, and in truth the facts are antithetical to it.   However, there is enough smoke surrounding Calipari that a lot of folks seem completely comfortable in their conviction that he is an NCAA scofflaw regardless of any factual evidence to the contrary.  I guess, ultimately, that falls under the rubric of life not being fair, but many of us at Kentucky can hardly wait until we win an NCAA championship with Coach Cal at the helm.  The mere thought of the hand-wringing and emotional suffering of his critics when that happens is irresistible schadenfreude.

Mainly, however, what the Big Blue Nation wants is good basketball and frequent shots at the national championship.  Calipari seems to be delivering on those two things, and in the end, that’s what makes Kentucky fans happy.

Q: Given how much more focused these freshmen are, is it surprising to see them stumble during SEC games? While conference games are always tough, the other SEC teams have more than their share of issues. Perhaps my expectations of them and their talents are too high, but losing to Alabama? Yeesh.

A: Is it surprising to see them stumble?  Not really.  First of all, the SEC looks considerably better to me this year than last, and I think the ease of some of the earlier victories had led them to believe they didn’t need to bring 100 percent focus every game.  Hopefully, the bloom is off that rose and they understand that there are no easy games in conference outside of maybe Auburn and LSU this year.

Alabama has, as a strength, what is potentially Kentucky’s biggest weakness — size and inside presence. This Kentucky team is just now learning the kind of physicality that this league is capable of this year, and that it means a loss when you don’t play with the same level of physicality and intensity.  Kentucky really hasn’t faced teams like this — big, strong, and aggressive — all year until recently.  The non-conference schedule was filled with skill teams, not big, strong, aggressive teams.

Q: That said, who’s the team you fear most in the SEC?

A: None of them.  But the team most likely to beat Kentucky on a given night is Tennessee. 

Florida’s defense is lousy, and Kentucky has really learned to play the pick and roll this year, which is all Donovan runs.  They’ll beat a lot of teams that don’t play good defense, but Kentucky is not one of them.

Tennessee is talented and experienced at every position except the four, and they have a great skill player there in Tobias Harris.  They are capable of terrific defense and have the size, strength, and depth to really bother this Kentucky team.

Q: Your take on Bruce Pearl. How does he still have a job?

A: Tennessee figures that they simply cannot find a better coach, and are willing to take him warts and all.  I wonder what will happen if the NCAA insists on a “show cause” sanction against Pearl, similar to what they did to Kelvin Sampson (see this Andy Katz piece for more on that). 

That would almost force the Vols to fire Pearl, or literally appear before the committee for almost anything recruiting related.  It would hamstring Pearl’s greatest value to Tennessee, which is ability to recruit at the highest level.  I think this is a real possibility.

So if I were the Volunteers, I would get used to the idea of having to decide whether to retain a Bruce Pearl who cannot be involved with recruiting for as many as five years (but it most likely wouldn’t be that long), or to let him go.  Tennessee, and NCAA Commissioner Mike Slive on their behalf, has done everything they can to keep him. However the NCAA is likely to hit him with a much bigger hammer, and could possibly make him unemployable in college for the near future.

Q: Does Kentucky reach the Elite Eight again this season? Or better?

A:  I really don’t know.  This team has some issues against bigger, stronger teams due to a lack of size, toughness, and has a thin bench.  Worse, the bench players simply aren’t coming along at an acceptable rate.  That makes them vulnerable.

A lot depends on their draw, and how much Kentucky improves its execution between now and the NCAA tournament.  If they can get into the Sweet Sixteen, I’d say they have a chance to win it all just because they have one thing that really makes a difference during tournament time — good guards.  We keep hoping Eloy Vargas will develop into a serviceable big man, but to this point, he is one giant, negative Roland Rating.  Jon Hood is getting better, but he is still tentative and lacks the aggressiveness we need from him.

But good perimeter shooting teams are usually a handful in the tournament, and Kentucky is that.

Q: The Big Blue Nation is passionate. The Nation is large. The Nation is knowledgeable. But you don’t want to anger BBN. So, for those who think it’s either crazed Wildcats fans or Ashley Judd, describe the Kentucky fan base.

A: The Kentucky fan base is extremely culturally diverse, and that’s perhaps it’s greatest weakness as well as it’s most remarkable characteristic.  Most large fan bases tend to be highly urbanized, but the reverse is true for Kentucky.  Kentucky is a small state with a population of maybe 4.5 million souls, but the tradition of the flagship university of the Commonwealth and it’s basketball prowess have been handed down from father to son and mother to daughter for generations all over the state.  Even in Louisville, where I live, you would expect Cardinal fans to vastly outnumber Kentucky fans, but it’s closer to an even split.  Around the rest of the state, it’s probably 50-1 Kentucky.

Kentucky has a lot of rural areas that often seem like they are living in the America of 30 years ago, and many Kentucky fans tend to be working-class people who inherited their fandom like a genetic trait.  The Internet has helped many of the Big Blue faithful from remote regions of the state join into the conversation, and those long-time fan gaining access to more sophisticated on-line communities produces some peculiar and sometimes lamentable commentary, as does the predictable occasionally irrational blather of younger fans.  For the most part, these two groups account for much of the rage produced when somebody is perceived to have dissed the Blue and White.

An ongoing problem is a bit of paranoia among our fans that stems from provocative media members who misunderstand the Commonwealth, which they too often deride as a backwater filled with a bunch of ignorant hayseeds.  Kentucky fans may not all be urbane by the definition of big city fan bases, but they are well-meaning and friendly for the most part.

The Big Blue Nation is especially sensitive to implications of racial bigotry that has become a frequent touchstone of Kentucky critics, mostly in the form of 20/20 hindsight and the almost irresistible temptation for any author commenting on the state of race relations to use the Commonwealth as a negative example.  Even the fact that the Kentucky they so roundly criticize no longer actually exists does not seem to dissuade them much.  One would think that the hiring of multiple minority head coaches would serve to head this commentary off at the pass, but it hasn’t so far.

It’s also frustrating for the fans to have to listen to critics of Calipari attack him so continuously and with such venom.  Big Blue fans are not used to having a coach who is this big a target, and it feeds the notion that the whole world is ganging up on what is arguably the most beloved institution in the state.  It is one thing to have to react to the likes of traditional rivals like Louisville and Indiana, but it is quite another to have people unaffiliated with those worthies constantly attacking Coach Cal and, by imputation, the University of Kentucky.

Kentucky fans are far less homogeneous than almost any large fan base in the United States, particularly culturally.  It makes the Big Blue Nation an always-interesting place.

Q: This is like asking you to choose your favorite child, but who’s your favorite Kentucky team of all time? And the player?

A: Actually, this one is easy for me — the Suffocats, as the 2002-03 team was known, were my favorite Kentucky team of all time, with the 1977-78 National Champions a fairly close second.

The Suffocats were the greatest defensive and interior passing Kentucky team I have witnessed in my lifetime, although I can’t speak for others like Rupp’s Runts in 1966, which were before my time as a UK fan.  The 2002-03 team started out the season with a one point victory over Athletes in Action in the first exhibition game and a loss to Team Nike in the second.  That’s about as inauspicious a start as any successful Kentucky team has ever had.

On January 14th in Memorial Gym in Nashville, the Wildcats went into the locker room the Timid Cats, down eight points to an unranked Vandy team that was beating them senseless.  They came out the Suffocats, and emasculated the Commodores in front of their home crowd, turning them over 13 times in the second half alone, 12 of which were steals, and holding them to 4-17 shooting in a game that wasn’t nearly as close as the 74-52 beat-down indicated.

They went on to finish the season undefeated (and unchallenged) in the SEC while hanging manhood-crushing thumpings on Vanderbilt in Rupp (106-44) and then No. 1 Florida (70-55), and I contend only the high ankle sprain Keith Bogans suffered against Wisconsin in the Sweet Sixteen kept Kentucky from winning the national championship, although Dwyane Wade certainly may have been able to go crazy even on a healthy Bogans.  Unfortunately, we will never know.  In any case, Marquette defeated Kentucky in the Elite Eight to end that magical season.

Q: How did you get into blogging? How much longer do you envision doing it?

A: By accident, really.  I stumbled on blog called Bogan’s Heroes back in 2005.  I made a few comments there, and eventually the owner of the blog was offered a gig for SBNation’s new Kentucky blog, A Sea of Blue.  I followed him over there, and eventually he made me a co-blogger.  After a while, he decided to start a family and the blog became too much for him, so he asked me to take it over, which I did.  I’ve been doing it ever since along with my co-blogger, Ken Howlett.

I will do this pretty much as long as SBNation will have me, I guess.  I love it dearly, and right now can’t imagine life without it.

Want more? I’m also on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.