By Zach McCrite
What an unusual college sports landscape we’re in right now in Kentuckiana.
Sure, pro sports chatter is primarily about the athletes. But in major, revenue-producing college athletics, the primary subject of the ire for media and fans (save for very few exceptions) is the head coach.
And in our area, we’re in a curious spot with all of the head coaches at the basketball programs.
THE CURIOUS CASE OF ARCHIE MILLER
Let’s start with Indiana, probably the least curious of the three within a proverbial rock’s throw from this publication’s readership.
Archie Miller has been given plenty of leash to work out the kinks in a program that certainly needed it. And it’s been a work in progress, to say the least.
In fact, there have been many fans that have – more or less – allowed the first-year head coach to take massive, embarrassing losses at the friendly confines of Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall.
Multiple losses. To other in-state teams. By 20 or more points.
Sure, between implementing a brand-new style of play and doing it with the limited talent left to him on the current roster, getting Indiana back to the perennial Top 25 team they used to be once upon a time is, of course, not an overnight process.
But, even with those disparaging losses, Hoosier fans and media alike (myself included) have treated Miller with kid gloves, taking these losses in stride, for the most part.
Of course, it’s safe to say there has been some improvement in the group as the season has gone on. Tip of the cap, Arch.
But, I feel like, even in his charter season, Archie would be feeling a little more heat from all of us in Hoosierland if not for this little protective bubble that’s been placed around him.
That bubble goes by the name of Romeo Langford.
As sports fans, we traffic in hope. We thrive on it. It’s our caffeine. That hope is what keeps us coming back for more, even when success isn’t coming at a consistent rate. It’s our current cup of coffee.
And that current cup of “hope coffee” is Romeo,
the top high school shooting guard in the Class of 2018, making posters out of poor opposing defenders with his addictive take-him-home-to-meet-your-momma demeanor.
The kind of local celeb where you can talk to other local strangers about him, refer to him only by his first name, and both of you know to whom the other is referring.
I don’t know where Romeo is going for his college basketball career. Neither do you (unless, of course, he surprised us all with an announcement between the time of this writing and now). But Hoosier fans are hoping it’s IU, obviously.
And it’s a credit to Miller that IU is even in the hunt for Romeo, especially given the substandard state of the Indiana hoops program.
My educated guess? Romeo wouldn’t have IU in his final list of potential schools to which he’s contemplating going to school to play basketball had Tom Crean still been the coach in Bloomington.
But Romeo’s interest in the Hoosiers has created a protective bubble of hope around Miller. Until Romeo decides to commit to a school not named Indiana, that protective hope bubble will not fade, providing what would be harsh criticism – the kind usually reserved for coaches who receive beatdowns from powerhouses like Indiana State and Fort Wayne – from really hitting the IU coach.
And if Romeo does decide to dawn the Crimson and Cream, that protective cocoon once conceived of hope where Miller currently resides will turn into one made out of real credit (and gratitude, too).
THE CURIOUS CASE OF JOHN CALIPARI
I’m literally shocked by the way Kentucky head coach John Calipari has been acting lately.
Sure, he’s a master of using the media to get a message across to his team (and, at times, to his recruits as well). But, this time around, he’s been as critical of a Kentucky team as he’s ever been as the head coach of the Wildcats, especially given the new class of freshmen he brought to Lexington, a class worthy of a top-five preseason national ranking.
John Calipari’s success at UK has been exemplary. Final Fours, once a fleeting luxury under Tubby Smith and an impossibility under Billy Gillispie, are now damn near expected regardless of the new crop of newcomers that comes into Big Blue Country.
In Cal We Trust.
Whether it’s after the oodles of victories or the small handful of defeats, Cal will usually mention the seemingly few flaws of his team. They’re usually mental flaws that he hopes will get corrected by the time the NCAA Tournament rolls around.
More often than not, Cal blames these flaws on his team’s never-ending youth. As expected as death and taxes.
But this season has been different. The Cats are taking unusual losses – unusual for Big Blue Nation, at least. It’s not like they’re going to miss the tournament or anything.
But the usual Cal quotes have been modified. This is a rarity.
Consider: Earlier in the season, after a 29-point shellacking of rival Louisville, the UK coach did the unthinkable. He was going to stop referring to that youth.
“I said today before the game, we’re no longer freshmen,” Calipari said after another victory in the rivalry back in December. “I’m not saying it anymore – we’re not freshmen now. We’re 10 games in, 11 games in, we are not freshmen.”
Then, in a mid-January loss at home against lowly South Carolina, Calipari went back to his old, youth-based excuses for his team’s inability to play at the level commensurate to the Kentucky head coach’s expectations had returned.
“This looked like a bunch of freshmen playing,” Calipari said after his team’s 76-68 collapse at South Carolina.
“The first half, you would look and say, ‘Ah, they got a nice team and da da da da.’ They’re all freshmen. In the second half, you looked at us and we looked like a bunch of freshmen playing like freshmen would play.”
Cal used the word “freshmen” three times before he took one breath.
Perhaps the players aren’t the only ones reverting to old childlike habits.
The surprise isn’t that the excuses had returned, it’s that Cal tried to make those disappear in the first place.
And then on top of that has been the cryptic way in which he’s talked about one of his six (SIX!) five-star freshmen recruits.
Jarred Vanderbilt injured his foot early in the preseason and hadn’t played a game up until the aforementioned loss to South Carolina. It had been Vanderbilt’s third injury to the same foot. That is a true worry for a player seemingly-destined to be less than a calendar year away from having a seven-annual income.
Kentucky had needed him. And people had seen reports of him continuously practicing and dressing for games.
But Vanderbilt still wasn’t seeing the court, and Calipari was being uncharacteristically and mostly-indirectly criticizing Vanderbilt’s inability to play.
“I’d like for him to give me more than what I would’ve gotten today because I didn’t see him all day,” Calipari said.
It was like there was more to the story. Who knows?
“The problem with being injured when you’re on my teams, I really spend no time with you,” Calipari said. “Sometimes I forget names. Like I forget who (Vanderbilt) is. Because I’ve gotta focus on the guys I’m coaching right now. They’ve gotta get healthy and be ready to come back and be ready to go. Jarred is the same.”
He forgets his players’ names? Come on.
Calipari is always a master of the media. His press conferences are always entertaining.
But this year, it’s just been different. Different than in any other season.
It’s been over the top.
THE CURIOUS CASE OF DAVID PADGETT
The most curious case of all has been David Padgett. The poor guy got thrown into an absolute grease fire.
So, of course, his team floundered around for awhile while the players acclimated to a coaching style that is, by many accounts, far more relaxed than the style of their coaching predecessor, Rick Pitino.
The feeling I got from Pitino before his firing was that if Donovan Mitchell, currently one of the NBA’s best rookies, left for the pros after last season, it was going to be an uphill climb for this season’s championship hopes.
No surprise there. Mitchell is a star. Any team would hurt if they lost a kid like Mitchell.
Obviously, this was before Pitino got gifted Brian Bowen, the highly-touted recruit whose family member, we later learned, allegedly agreed to receive money to come to Louisville, which, in part, may have ended up being the final nail in Pitino’s Cardinal Coffin.
Since then, Padgett has had to do a dance of trying to be himself to his team, while still trying to cling to many Pitino’s championship principles.
Now, many Pitino loyalists, who are still bitter about the way “Slick Rick” was dismissed are taking out the team’s struggles on Padgett.
“The players aren’t listening to him.”
“Padgett’s lost this team. This would’ve never (have) happened to Rick.”
We got it, Rick-backers, winning trumps all, even multiple NCAA violations.
But, for the rest of us that think Pitino’s firing was justified, even if we admired his coaching ability (I know I did), there was really no other way to bring on a brand-new coach that had any sort of resume.
UofL had two weeks to figure this out, for crying out loud. What were they supposed to do?
Had Louisville brought on a seasoned, but recently-fired coach, that coach isn’t going to just agree to a one-year deal. And even if they do, what if they had success? Then, Louisville would’ve had to stick with the guy, a guy they had all but a handful of days to truly vet.
The timing was terrible.
Still, Padgett is taking a team that likely wasn’t destined for the Final Four and, as of this writing, has gone the whole season with just a handful of losses – none of them to teams outside the AP Top 25.
It’s been a fascinating watch.
HERE’S A CURIOUS BONUS
And, alone at the top, probably sipping on a Mai Tai and cackling at all the other nonsense going on south of West Lafayette, is Matt-freaking-Painter. Who knew he’d be the one with the stress meter, relatively speaking, at zero?
What an unusual college hoops landscape, indeed.