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There Are Two Versions of Kentucky

The Wildcats’ loss to Louisville raises a familiar line of questioning. Plus, breaking down Purdue’s new approach and the end of the Grayson Allen Redemption Tour.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Before we get to the power rankings, I want to pour one out for everyone who bought tickets for the Grayson Allen Redemption Tour. I’m not sure if it’s too late to get a refund, but the tour is officially cancelled. What a damn shame. I was told for months that Allen had changed his ways, that he was done with the tripping, the flopping, and the general douchebaggery that plagued him for so much of last season. You’ll see, college basketball analysts across the nation said. Allen spent all summer “working on himself” and was now rescuing puppies and feeding the homeless and growing out his bangs to donate to Locks of Love. He had completely transformed, and if you couldn’t handle that, well, it was probably because you’re a #hater who just can’t stand to see white guys at Duke succeed. HE’S NOT GOING TO APOLOGIZE FOR BEING COMPETITIVE, YOU GUYS. LEAVE HIM ALONE.

[Crushes these videos into a fine powder and snorts it]

Ahhhhh, that’s the stuff.

Look, I don’t mean to pile on here but … HOLY SHIT THIS IS THE GREATEST THING EVER. In the lead-up to this season, I almost went blind rolling my eyes at all the “Allen doesn’t want his antics from last year to define him” stories, and this is exactly why. Talking about how you’ve changed means jack shit if you can’t back it up with your actions. And yeah, I was rooting for the guy at the start of the season. I hoped that he really did get the bullshit out of his system because — and I swear I actually do think this — he can be fun to watch on the rare occasions when he isn’t flopping or tripping his opponents. But maybe we should’ve held off on launching the “Allen is different now!” campaign until, you know, he actually proved that he was different?

I’m so fascinated with where we go from here. Coach K has suspended Allen indefinitely, but how long will that be? Will Allen read, like, four self-help books in a week and then pretend that he’s magically different? What does this mean for his draft stock? How do his teammates feel about him? How do J.J. Redick and Christian Laettner feel about getting lumped into the same category as Allen? And more importantly, what does this mean for Duke’s season? Does Allen being an even bigger loose cannon than he was last year have any impact on whether the Blue Devils can be as good as we all thought? Was Luke Kennard talking about Allen when he called out his teammates following Wednesday’s 72–61 win over Elon?

There’s so much to process. For now, take a bow if you’ve been vindicated for hating Allen when everyone tried to tell you he had changed. I’ll admit that I was somewhat of a sucker for his redemption story. I wanted to believe there was a chance that he could head down the right path. And maybe he was on his way initially, but now it’s pretty clear that his quest for redemption has been … wait for it … tripped up!

OK, on to the rankings.

12. Butler (11–1)
11. Creighton (12–0)

10. Purdue (11–2)

I’m not saying it’s time to panic, but we’ve almost reached the start of conference play and a Matt Painter–coached team is still really fun to watch. And Robbie Hummel isn’t even on the roster! What the hell is happening in West Lafayette?

Purdue basketball in the post-Hummel era has had a few distinct characteristics: great, physical defense; a painfully slow tempo; A.J. Hammons looking at the clock to figure out how much longer he has to wait until he can crawl back into bed; and a bunch of guards (most of whom have the last name “Johnson”) throwing the ball everywhere in the gym except through the basket. (Oh, and Painter doing that thing where he puts both arms out and his palms up when he complains to the refs. That, too.) These are things that I’ve grown accustomed to seeing from Purdue, which is why none of them applying to this season’s Boilermakers has turned my world upside down.

There’s been a complete and sudden culture shift in the program and, as best as I can tell, there are two people to thank for that. The first is Caleb Swanigan, a 6-foot-9 sophomore who has been the best player in the Big Ten and maybe even the best big man in the country. Swanigan is averaging 18.3 points and 12.5 rebounds per game, and that production is a huge reason Purdue is among the favorites to win the league title. More important than his production, though, is his versatility, something that’s been missing in marquee players at Purdue since Hummel left in 2012.

The Boilermakers have stuck with an antiquated approach to their lineup in recent years (especially last season), as virtually every player has seemed to have an obvious and concrete position (point guard, shooting guard, etc.). The modern game requires more flexibility than that, not just with the different combinations of players who can be put on the floor at once, but also the way those players maneuver around the court. Purdue in 2016–17 has figured that out. Swanigan’s greatly improved jump shot (he’s shooting 52 percent from the 3-point line after shooting 29 percent from deep last season) and playmaking abilities (his assists-per-game average has jumped from 1.8 to 3.0) have unlocked an entirely new world of possibilities for Painter, who can now throw basically any combination of four players on the court alongside Swanigan and succeed. That, paired with Hammons no longer clogging the paint on both ends of the floor, has made Purdue less predictable. What was once a rigid and methodical offense has become a fluid unit that can be as devastating under the basket as it is behind the arc.

The other person responsible for Purdue’s culture shift is freshman guard Carsen Edwards, who brings a swagger to Purdue that’s been absent from the program for years. Edwards is fourth on the team in scoring (10.4 points per game), fifth in assists (1.9), and fifth in minutes played (23.0), so I admittedly may be overstating his impact. But I have to be honest — the Boilermakers guards over the past four or five years have all blended together in my mind, forming one forgettable player who can’t shoot, can’t break a press, and looks like he’s in over his head at all times. A Purdue guard like Edwards, who’s just as confident as he is fearless, is a breath of fresh air. He’s had plenty of freshmen moments so far, and he’ll have plenty more to come, but I can honestly say that he’s grabbed my attention every time I’ve watched Purdue this season. That has to count for something.

Purdue basketball in recent years hasn’t exactly been cool. The Boilers have had varying degrees of success, but I get the feeling that not a single person outside of Big Ten country has given them more than a passing thought since Hummel graduated. It’s still early, but this team has the potential to change that. Swanigan has become a must-see player, and Edwards’s refusal to fit a mold seems to have sparked something in the rest of Purdue’s guards, who all seem more relaxed and confident than they did a season ago. Factor in Isaac Haas — a 7-foot-2 behemoth with great touch around the basket even if he’s always a half-step too slow — and versatile, 6-foot-8 forward Vince Edwards, and Purdue has the pieces to beat any team in college basketball.

The Boilers are going to run into problems if they don’t tighten up their defense, and I can’t tell what’s more ridiculous: Swanigan’s hair or sophomore guard Ryan Cline wearing tights on only one leg. But these guys have a ton of talent and can win in all sorts of ways. As strange as it seems, Purdue might just be cool again.

Halftime

It’s halftime, which can mean only one thing: It’s time for Dick’s Degrees of Separation, the most mildly amusing internet game involving college basketball! You know the drill: I give you the endpoint of a Dick Vitale tangent and you pick the path he took to get there. Let’s get to it.

During Saturday’s Purdue–Notre Dame game in Indianapolis, how did Dick Vitale end up talking about the Boys & Girls Club of Sarasota County?

A. A promo for the New Orleans Bowl, to be played later that night, is displayed onscreen. Vitale offers his take on bowl season, then mentions how he hopes that both Notre Dame and Purdue can turn their football programs around. He says Purdue’s hire of Jeff Brohm is a good one, but that he thinks P.J. Fleck was the man Purdue really wanted for the job. Vitale reminds viewers that Fleck is the head coach at Western Michigan, the alma mater of Vitale’s late friend and colleague, John Saunders. He then says Saunders would’ve loved the Broncos’ undefeated 13–0 season before mentioning that his annual gala will be held in Saunders’s honor. According to Vitale, the proceeds of this gala will go to the Boys & Girls Club of Sarasota County.

B. When the broadcast returns from a commercial break, Vitale’s partner for the game, Dave Flemming, tells viewers that the Crossroads Classic is being played in Bankers Life Fieldhouse, home of the Indiana Pacers. This is noteworthy because Vitale served as a Pacers TV analyst in the 1980s, a history Flemming explains as a picture of Vitale and Chuck Person is shown onscreen. Vitale laughs as he reminisces about his time with the Pacers, then tells viewers that Person is now an assistant at Auburn under head coach Bruce Pearl. Vitale goes on to say that “Santa Claus came early” for Pearl and Auburn, who recently received word that five-star prospect Austin Wiley is eligible to play for the Tigers. Vitale then begins singing “Here Comes Santa Claus.” This apparently evokes a sense of youthfulness in Dickie V., who segues into mentioning that he recently behaved like a 10-year-old at a party he hosted for the Boys & Girls Club of Sarasota County.

C. Flemming explains to viewers that this is the first game of the Crossroads Classic, with Indiana and Butler set to play later on. Vitale says the Crossroads Classic has become one of his favorite college basketball events, citing the fact that it’s great for the fans to see these in-state rivals play each other. This is something that shouldn’t be taken for granted, Vitale says, before going on an impassioned rant about how awful it is that Indiana and Kentucky no longer play each other. The rant ends with him begging Tom Crean and John Calipari to find a way to renew the rivalry. Dickie V. then jokes that he thinks he could broker a deal between the two coaches. After all, a few years ago he got Crean and Calipari to sit at the same table at one of his events to benefit the Boys & Girls Club of Sarasota County.

9. Gonzaga (12–0)
8. North Carolina (11–2)
7. Louisville (11–1)

6. Kentucky (10–2)

We have a tendency to overreact to every loss by a blueblood program, as though a school’s storied history somehow makes it inconceivable that it could lose to a rival ranked in the top 10 of the AP poll on the road. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. I’ll rewatch high-profile losses and dissect every possession like I’m trying to crack the code as to how a group of 18- to 22-year-olds could possibly display unpredictable behavior. I guess this team was overrated all along! Becoming a national champion requires winning six games in a row, and these guys are currently on a one-game losing streak, so if my math checks out, it’s impossible for them to go all the way! They are a complete mess and there’s no indication that they’ll be able to figure things out, which raises a crucial question: Is it time to consider a coaching change?

I don’t mean to do that here. It’s just, over 12 games, this might be the most Calipari-esque team that John Calipari has ever had at Kentucky. I mean that in both the good and the bad sense. If you’re a fan of the way Calipari handles his business, there’s plenty to love about this team. I can’t think of a backcourt since Illinois in 2004–05 that’s more exciting than the Wildcats’ duo of De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk. And as easy as it is to dismiss Calipari’s role in Fox’s and Monk’s development, it should be noted that Calipari’s approach of giving his players freedom isn’t the norm in college basketball. Even if all Calipari does is recruit these guys and then toss them the keys once they get to campus (it’s not), that in and of itself is something. Plenty of coaches across the country land big-time recruits, yet Calipari is the best at cultivating the talent once he gets it, to the point that most of his players become household names before they leave for the NBA.

The rub, of course, is that turning players into individual stars isn’t always the best way to build a winning team. That’s always been the primary criticism of Calipari — he’s more interested in building a brand than coaching basketball — and this season hasn’t done anything to silence his critics, especially following Wednesday’s 73–70 loss to Louisville. It was pretty clear from the opening tip that Rick Pitino’s plan was to make Kentucky think, and it was just as clear that the Cats had no interest in doing that. The Cardinals diced up the Wildcats with ball screens and dribble handoffs (the hardest things to guard, or at least the things that take the most thinking and communication to stop), then used changing defenses to confuse the young Kentucky backcourt.

I should pause here and say that I don’t think Kentucky’s players are stupid, nor do I believe that Calipari is clueless during in-game situations. It’s just that this group is like two completely different teams. There’s the team that turns basketball games into track meets and overwhelms opponents with size and athleticism. This is the group that showed up in last Saturday’s 103–100 win over North Carolina, one of the few teams in America that can run with Kentucky. (UCLA is obviously another.) Neither side could stop the other, Monk saved the Cats in the end, and the intoxicating nature of the game left me so delirious that I momentarily thought I had just watched a matchup between the two greatest teams ever assembled.

The other Kentucky team, though, is the one that lost to Louisville. This is the group that slows down and is forced to think, which is something most of the Wildcats players have rarely had to do in their careers since they’ve always been so much better than their competition. Monk was feeling himself a little too much after dropping 47 points on UNC and made virtually every shot he took against Louisville 20 percent harder than it had to be; Fox, who has a notoriously bad jumper, attempted six shots from outside 15 feet, which is at least five more than he should have taken; and Wenyen Gabriel just couldn’t resist throwing up his token missed 3-point attempt of the game (he’s gone exactly 0-for-1 from behind the arc in nine of Kentucky’s 12 games).

And that’s where the Calipari criticism comes from: The thinking goes that the first Kentucky team (the one that showed up against North Carolina) is successful because of the players, while the second Kentucky team (the one that lost to Louisville) struggles because of the coach. I don’t necessarily think this is a fair assessment, as it’s tough for a coach to get all that talent and youth to understand what he wants in a short amount of time. But I get it. If nothing else, it’s fair to wonder if Kentucky can beat great teams when forced into a half-court game. It’s tempting to just say, “They’re young and there’s plenty of time left to figure it out,” but things don’t quite work that way. Kentucky isn’t the only team that will get better as the season progresses, and it’s not a given that everything is eventually going to click.

Kentucky is a very good basketball team that can be a great team under certain circumstances. I don’t think there’s any doubt that the Wildcats are going to win a lot this season. It’s just not yet clear what form that winning will take. Will the Wildcats win by producing a ton of highlights, sending a handful of guys to the NBA, and adding to the reputation of a media-savvy coach who has his own official website, in-season podcast, and book tour? Or will they win by steamrolling through the SEC, making a Final Four, and maybe even capturing Calipari’s second national championship? If that last case plays out, hopefully the Louisville loss taught the Cats that they can’t just rely on talent alone.

5. Duke (12–1)
4. Kansas (11–1)
3. UCLA (13–0)
2. Villanova (12–0)
1. Baylor (12–0)

The Syracuse Update of the Week

Syracuse lost its three leading scorers from last season’s team that made the Final Four as a no. 10 seed, but the Orange also brought back potential lottery pick Tyler Lydon and added guys like Andrew White III, John Gillon, Taurean Thompson, and Tyus Battle. Head coach Jim Boeheim said in October that he hadn’t been as excited about his team in five years, and early on it was easy to see why. The Orange were 4–0 by Thanksgiving, with an average margin of victory of almost 34 points.

And yet, Syracuse hasn’t gotten much national attention since. I wonder what’s going on. Are the Orange purposely flying under the radar so they can sneak up on everyone again? Is the media punishing Boeheim for his cantankerous relationship with them over the years? SHOULD I GRAB MY PITCHFORK AND RAISE SOME HELL OVER HOW DISRESPECTED SYRACUSE IS???

Oh. That’s … uh … not good. Well, I’m sure the Syracuse fans are levelheaded about everything. I mean, it’s a long season and there’s plenty of time to bounce ba —

Welp. At least the football team is … [looks up record] … ah shit, really? I’m so sorry, ’Cuse fans.

The Dick’s Degrees of Separation answer is B. See you in 2017!