At this point, it seems like we’re running out of adjectives to describe the University of Kentucky men’s basketball team. During the Wildcats’ 78-39 ass-kicking of West Virginia on Thursday night, we broke into the reserves during the first half.
By the second, the game had become so overwhelmingly lopsided that viewers probably wouldn’t have cared if CBS had used a split screen to broadcast reruns of The Good Wife. I never thought that during the Sweet 16 my two buddies and I would become so engaged in conversation about the unused ranch dipping sauce left over from our pizza order. But in a game so bereft of drama, that was the case. For a while there, we even debated watching My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding.
But somewhere around the time Andrew Harrison pulled an around-the-back finger roll, our conversation returned to basketball. It also took a bizarre and preposterous turn on social media: Could Kentucky beat an NBA team? My interest piqued, I began racking my brain for the perfect answer. I arrived at one: There is such a thing as a stupid question.
Absolutely, under no circumstances, even if they played in Rupp Arena with Ashley Judd as special guest referee and Pappy Van Winkle as coach, could Kentucky beat even the worst NBA team. Not even the New York Knicks. And all due respect to SMU coach Larry Brown – a dean in the coaching fraternity – but his claim that Kentucky would be a playoff team in the Eastern Conference seemed motivated more by sensationalism than realism.
Before you start calling me a Kentucky hater, understand that I love this squad. I’m not a fair-weather (or any type) of fan, really. But I am in awe what this team has done for college basketball this season. The Wildcats are must-see TV – at least until they have the game in hand. Love ’em or hate ’em, everyone wants to watch ’em play, even if it’s too see who might keep things close (Notre Dame?) A tight Kentucky game is as dramatic as it has gotten this college basketball season.
More importantly, and for the purposes of this conversation, this Kentucky team has surpassed the designation of great. It is nearing transcendent. If they win the national championship, we’ll have a serious conversation as to whether this is the greatest college basketball team of all time, and if that is the case, you will definitely see a 46-year-old Willie Cauley-Stein discussing last night’s destruction of the Mountaineers in an ESPN “50 for 50” film (“We wanted that one, bad,” he will say with a smile).
But could this Kentucky team beat the Knicks, let alone compete with the Celtics, Pacers or Nets for the 8th spot in the East? No way.
It boils down to the very simple notion that Kentucky’s basketball players are amateurs (feel free to insert obligatory jokes about Kentucky’s perceived recruiting practices) and NBA players are professionals. The NCAA limits practice time to 20 hours a week. For NBA players, basketball consumes their day.
During Thursday’s drubbing of West Virginia, Kentucky played 5-foot-9 sparkplug Tyler Ulis 26 minutes – third-most on the team. Against West Virginia, Ulis had more fouls (four) than points (two). Ulis has been among the most-used on Kentucky’s team. He’s a point guard’s point guard. His ability to dictate pace is as good as any player in college basketball. He may make the NBA one day. It’s not this day, though. That was clear from his performance Thursday. It’s probably years away.
There’s no need to pick on Ulis, who is among my favorite college players to watch. Like so many Kentucky players, his NBA future is predicated on development. Translation: Several of the players on Kentucky’s roster aren’t immediate impact guys at the next level. This team is loaded with NBA prospects. But they’re just that – prospects. That inherently means there’s no guarantee they’ll adjust to the differences in the pro game (no more camping out in the paint, the 24-second shot clock, etc.) let alone develop into players good enough to crack an NBA rotation, where guys are bigger, stronger and motivated by things much-less pure than a place in history.
One day that might happen. More than one Kentucky player might be an NBA All-Star. Maybe someone from this Wildcats squad will even make the Hall of Fame. That will only come in time. Because right now, measure up these Kentucky players against an NBA team and they’re bound to come up short. For the first (and probably only) time this season.