To Kill A Mockingbird
"Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don't eat up people's gardens, don't nest in corncribs, they don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."
First, I should note that, by naming this post “To Kill A Mockingbird,” I don’t mean to argue that Tubby Smith was forced out at Kentucky because of his race. And don’t, for a second, dupe yourself into believing that Ol’ Orlando wasn’t forced out. Whatever comes out in the next couple of weeks, regardless of whether Tubby took the Minnesota job before resigning at UK or whether AD Mitch Barnhart was planning on sticking with Tubby for one more season, try to be honest with yourselves. Mitch Barnhart forced him out. Rick Pitino forced him out. Kelenna Azubuike’s failure to get off a shot in overtime against Michigan State forced him out. Joe Crawford’s inability to grasp the game of basketball forced him out. The Florida Gators’ 2005 recruiting class forced him out. Chris Lofton forced him out. Randolph Morris’ lack of character and general indifference to all those that helped him forced him out. To some extent, Tubby forced himself out. But, most significantly, Big Blue Nation forced him out.
I truly believe that Tubby Smith would have been forced out, regardless of his skin color. Make no mistake, race is an issue in Kentucky, just as it is in every state, as much as those condescending northerners would like us to think they’re past all that. We could be talking about Billy Donovan or anyone else, and, if what has transpired under Tubby’s watch had occurred under anyone else’s, rest assured, Big Blue Nation would be calling for his head. As we’ve heard repeated over and over again, success at UK is measured in Final Fours and National Championships, not sissy Elite 8’s and SEC championships.
Take a look at Tubby’s tenure at UK. A better than 75% winning percentage. A national championship. 10 years and 10 NCAA tourney appearances, with no first round exits. 3 Elite 8’s. Plus, 2 number 1 seeds in those tourneys. 5 SEC regular season titles and 5 SEC tourney titles. 2003 Henry Iba Award winner for best coach in college basketball. And don’t forget that Tubby played a large part in the rebuilding efforts at UK as an assistant under Rick Pitino.
There is no doubt that the UK program has been somewhat disappointing (by UK standards) the past 2 seasons. But, ask yourself, would Tubby have been forced out if Kelenna Azubuike gets a shot off against the Spartans in the 2005 Elite 8? If that shot goes in, Tubby is just 2 years removed from a Final 4 appearance, and he’s not going anywhere. Over the course of the last 10 years, I would argue that UK has been one of the 4 most dominant programs in college basketball (along with Connecticut, Duke, and Kansas). In fact, I’d stand by this statement, even if you took away the 1998 national championship season and just looked at the landscape of college basketball over the last 9 years. Put simply, UK has been one of the most dominant programs in college basketball during Tubby’s tenure.
I would argue that the main factor leading to Tubby’s departure was the 2005 recruiting season. The Cats got a much-heralded quartet of supposed future stars—Randolph Morris, Joe Crawford, Rajon Rondo, and Ramel Bradley. Morris, Crawford, and Rondo, all McDonald’s All-Americans, were hailed by Big Blue Nation as the answer to their long (7-year) championship drought. While UK had reeled in the Mother Load, further south, in Gainesville, Pitino-protégé Billy Donovan was putting together a talented, while far less-hyped, class of recruits. The class consisted of a single McDonald American, Corey Brewer, two players with basketball in their blood (Taurean Green and Al Horford), and Joakim Noah. 3 years later, these class’ divergent paths have been well-documented. While the 2005 Florida class has a national championship to their credit, is working on another one, and boasts 3 sure-fire lottery picks, their Bluegrass counterpart has failed on any number of levels. Rondo, the best of the 4, wasn’t exactly interested in team chemistry and left for the NBA after his sophomore year. New York Knick Randolph Morris has epitomized the state of confusion and lack of excitement in UK basketball for the past 2 seasons, never displaying more than an iota of work ethic or loyalty during his stay in Lexington. Joe Crawford may be the least intelligent basketball player that doesn’t play in the post that I have EVER seen at a program in the big 6 conferences. He seems utterly incapable of grasping anything resembling an offense. He seems equally incompetent and lost on the defensive end of the floor. Ramel Bradley, for all of his hard work, has turned out to be nothing more than a slightly above average college point guard with an affinity for pounding his chest, popping his jersey, and displaying the Dynasty symbol to the eRUPPtion zone at altogether awkward moments. Plainly stated, these guys have been flops.
But UK fans can’t complain. These are the types of players they have been dying for Tubby to recruit. That’s not to say that Tubby’s recruiting has been stellar of late. The Perry-Thomas-Obrzut class will most likely look good compared to a Jared Carter class. Still, I don’t buy the “Tubby can’t recruit” argument. It would be hard for anyone to complain about Tubby’s pre-2003 recruiting. So, let’s just look at recruiting from 2003 to the present. Kentucky fans seem to love McDonald’s All-Americans (I admit that all fans do). Anyway, from 2003 to the present, there have been 120 McDonald’s All-Americans. 118 of those can be assigned to a college team or the NBA. 20 went to the NBA. 11 went to Duke. (By the way, to put into perspective just how dominant Duke recruiting has been for the last 5 years, consider that the Big 10 landed 11 McDonald’s All-Americans as a conference. The SEC also landed 11.) Anyway, Kansas has landed 8 Big Mac All-Stars, though David Padgett, Micah Downs, and J.R. Giddens have all since transferred. North Carolina has reeled in 7 All-Americans. Ohio State and Texas each got 5. Arizona and UCLA are next with 4 apiece. Georgetown, Georgia Tech, LSU, Syracuse, and Kentucky landed 3 McDonald’s All-Americans over this 5-year period. As I mentioned before, 2 of those 120 talented high schoolers can’t be assigned to the NBA or a college team…yet—Patrick Patterson and Jai Lucas. UK appears to have (or, possibly, have had) a shot with both of these talented high schoolers. If you add Patterson and Lucas to UK’s totals, that puts the Wildcats at 5, tied for fourth in the nation and right behind Duke, Kansas, and UNC. I’m not saying that this proves that Tubby is a great recruiter and that UK fans have nothing to complain about, I’m just trying to put things into perspective, something that seems to be lacking in Lexington.
The best argument I’ve heard from a UK fan as to why Tubby’s departure is a good thing goes something like this: “Sometimes change is good for change’s sake.” I actually agree with this, and maybe it is time for a change. But UK, and, more specifically, Mitch Barnhart, better have a plan in place. As much as some UK fans may want to deny it, college basketball has changed. As Runs With Two Horses has pointed out, bringing in a guy like Thad Matta can instantly boost your team to elite status. I would argue that the opposite can also happen.
So, where does UK go from here?
If they can bring in Billy Donovan, Bruce Pearl, Tom Crean, or even Rick Pitino, I think the UK program can go on without skipping a beat. All of these guys have big personalities, and they can recruit. With 3 of Donovan’s 4 juniors potentially leaving this season, now is as good a season as any for Billy D to come to the Bluegrass. However, I would ask all of those Donovan advocates to remember just how soft Donovan’s Florida teams played before he landed his current group of juniors. Pre-2005, Billy D’s teams were known more for their lack of defense and underachieving ways than for their competitiveness and limitless upsides. I can’t see Pearl wanting to leave the love fest that is Knoxville right now, but, considering that he’s pretty much a big goofy jackass with an enormous ego that happens to be a very good college basketball coach, I can see him relishing the limelight that comes from being the head coach at perhaps college basketball’s most storied program. I don’t know what I would do if Tom Crean came to UK. I have a big man-crush on Crean, and, as general rule, I don’t like UK basketball. I just pray that doesn’t happen. I can see Pitino leaving for UK, but I can’t see Tom Jurich being outsmarted by the giant screw-up that is Mitch Barnhart.
If you’ve read my previous posts on college coaching, you know that I would detest the idea of UK bringing in favorite sons John Pelphrey or Travis Ford. It’s all far too incestual and messy for my taste. Plus, if UK wants to go young, Tony Bennett is the choice. However, making the decision to pursue Tony Bennett would require an eye for talent that Mitch Barnhart simply does not possess. He’s more likely to pursue Tony’s dad, Dick, the architect of the Wisconsin program, who is now retired and closing in on death. Pelphrey apparently has an exciting team located somewhere around the Gulf that almost made the Tournament out of the mighty Sun Belt Conference. He may be a promising coach, but does Big Blue Nation want a promising coach. Travis Ford has improved the Massachusetts program but still seems a little green. I can see Billy Gillispie being a good fit. In fact, he might be one of the best fits from the non-Donovan/Pearl/Crean group of coaches. I’ve heard Mike D’Antoni rumors, and he would be an incredible steal (and I think the best of the whole bunch), although I think this is just one of the many crazy, unfounded UK rumors I’ve heard during my life in the Bluegrass. Now, on to Mark Few and Jay Wright. Few doesn’t have the personality that is going to placate the Wildcat faithful, who like to worship their program’s head coach. How do we even know if Jay Wright can coach? When you have guards like he has had over the past couple of years, you basically have two extra coaches on the floor at all times. What about John Calipari? Way too crooked for Big Blue Nation. If Calipari makes Big Blue Nation happy, Big Blue Nation has given up on the whole “let’s run a classy program and win” mentality that has made the Cats what they've been since the Eddie Sutton era. Bottom line: UK deserves to be picky and should be picky, but they need to move quickly.
As someone who doesn’t like UK basketball, I hope UK hires Rick Barnes out of Texas. I don’t think Barnes is as incompetent as some seem to believe. However, the idea that UK would run Tubby out of Lexington to hire Rick Barnes is just too delicious. Then again, maybe Kevin Durant will decide to sit out a year and follow Barnes to UK. If that happens, you all will have the last laugh.