Team preview: Kentucky
Blue Ribbon Yearbook previews the 2006-07 college basketball season, exclusively on Insider.
(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)
At some schools in the Southeastern Conference, 22 wins and a trip to the second round of the NCAA Tournament is enough to earn a coach a contract extension and more money than he could spend in three lifetimes. At Kentucky, all those same accomplishments earned coach Tubby Smith was a boatload of grief.
No, 22 victories and an early ouster in the NCAAs isn't nearly enough to tickle the fancy of Wildcat fans, easily the most passionate in college basketball but sometimes the most unrealistic, too.
How else to explain a story that broke over the summer, about the university's student newspaper, the Kentucky Kernel, rejecting a full-page ad that called for Smith's firing. No big deal, you say? The person who tried to place the ad is an adjunct professor at Kentucky.
"We see the program on the decline," Richard Cheeks, who claimed he represented 500 to 1,000 concerned fans, told the Lexington Herald-Leader. "We don't want it to decline the way the Louisville program did in the latter years when Denny Crum was there. So we decided that we were going to begin to get our message out."
Yeah, the program's in real decline all right. In Smith's nine seasons, the Wildcats have averaged almost 27 wins. They've played in the NCAA Tournament nine times, won a national championship and failed to reach the Sweet 16 only twice.
Lest we throw a blanket over all Kentucky fans, who are also some of the most knowledgeable in the game, most of them understood what happened last year, when Smith battled the uncertainty of whether star center Randolph Morris would be available, the resistance of some players who wanted to speed up the offense, and a general lack of toughness and focus.
Sometimes stuff happens. Sometimes, everything that can go wrong does go wrong. Regardless of what some Kentucky fans think, no program can compete for the national championship every year. It's impossible.
But the thing about Smith is that, without fail, when the Wildcats suffer through a sub-par season (and that term is relative), he always digs in and makes the changes necessary to get the program back on track. After last season, Smith vowed to make changes. Some fans automatically assumed some assistant coaches would be sent packing. That wasn't the case. But Smith did bring in a new strength coach, raiding Marquette for Scott Holsopple, a former boxer who sleeps near the weight room and whose wardrobe consists only of Kentucky shirts.
You get the idea Smith has taken care of any lack of toughness on his team. And Holsopple's handiwork has already streamlined the Wildcats but made them stronger, all the better to improve on last season's abysmal rebounding effort.
Kentucky didn't show up on some preseason Top 25 polls, but that's not the case in Blue Ribbon. Over the years, we've seen too much of Smith's grit and determination to write off him, or his program.