What's the biggest theme to emerge in college basketball this season? Teams that have experienced players who are invested in their programs have established themselves as the elite teams in their respective conferences and in the nation. In contrast, some of the higher-profile teams that have struggled have done so in large part due to a lack of experienced, invested players.
The best example of the latter is the Kentucky Wildcats. If there was one program in the country that might be expected to overcome a lack of experience, it'd be the one that has hauled in the No. 1 recruiting class in three of the last four seasons. But while most fans probably credit super-freshmen Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (the top two picks in last season's NBA draft) with being the biggest reasons for the Wildcats winning the national title, Kentucky would not have won it without the leadership of three upperclassmen who were invested in winning. Doron Lamb, Darius Miller and Terrence Jones helped coach the locker room and played with the sense of urgency you need to navigate the season.
Last season, when the Wildcats faced adversity, they had the maturity and experience to regroup and respond with a run. Their NCAA tournament game against Iowa State was a good example of this. Cyclones star Royce White was imposing his will, and the game was tied at 42. Instead of playing not to lose as the heavily favored team, the veteran leadership of Kentucky took over. Jones and Miller made back-to-back baskets, then Jones found Davis for an alley-oop. At that point, the game was effectively over.
If you put that core group of upperclassmen with this season's current group of freshmen, you probably wouldn't have a team on the same level as last season's title winner, but the Wildcats would be a Final Four team. Unfortunately for coach John Calipari, UK, which faces a critical conference matchup Tuesday night against the Ole Miss Rebels (9 p.m., ESPN), does not have a group of experienced upperclassmen this season.
The Wildcats' loss to Alabama this season provides us with a perfect example of how this is hurting the team. The young Wildcats played a solid first half, but after halftime Alabama responded with a run and Kentucky didn't have the invested players to lead the way and finish.
This deficiency is apparent when it comes to defensive communication. Players need to talk early, loud and continuously when defending ball screens, rotating out of double teams or switching. Last season's Kentucky team was active and alert and played like they were on a string -- they were a mature, invested team that was committed to getting stops. Yes, Davis was a special player, especially on the defensive end, but it was Kentucky's team defense that helped it win a national championship. The Wildcats had the maturity to sustain their defensive intensity for 40 minutes.
This season's Kentucky team has had a tough time sustaining defensive intensity and finishing possessions. It gets caught with two players on the ball in rotations due to lack of communication. The best way to describe this is that Kentucky, as a team, lacks substance, and its players are more self-focused than team-focused. That affects their ability to become a great team defensively.
Another problem the young Wildcats have on D is that they lack a lockdown defender. Texas A&M's Elston Turner dropped 40 against Kentucky in the Aggies' 12-point win. They don't have an invested player like Miller who has the toughness, strength and experience to take on the opponent's best perimeter player. They will definitely be challenged by one of the country's most confident and aggressive perimeter scorers in Ole Miss' Marshall Henderson in Tuesday night's matchup.
Having players who know the "hows" and "whys" of your system does not show up in the box score, but is essential to the bottom line of winning. Kentucky is finding that out this season. Most incoming freshmen have a hard time playing on instinct, and are slow to see plays on both sides of the ball. On defense, late help usually results in an easy basket or putting a team in rotation, which leads to a foul or poor rebounding position. On offense, the difference between a team that is merely running plays, as opposed to reading and reacting to the defense, is the difference between a team getting an open shot and a contested shot.
A lack of experience, like Kentucky has, can also manifest itself in special situations -- after timeouts, on out-of-bounds plays, and in short-clock and free throw situations. Having players that have been in that situation before and have confidence and trust in each other is the difference between a good season and a great season. Invested teams have trust, execute special situations and steal baskets that enable them to win close games.
None of this is to say that college basketball teams don't need talent to win. But there is no substitute for experience. Several future NBA players dot the rosters of the teams at the top of the latest polls, but all of the season's top championship contenders have experience at key spots.
And that is why this season's Kentucky team, a collection of several very talented individual players, is a work in progress. The Wildcats are missing the maturity needed to compete at the highest level. You can replace points and rebounds, but it is impossible to replace experience. If the young Wildcats continue to work and stay together, they will be good (and I do think they are still capable of getting a lot better before season's end). But without mature and invested players, they simply are not one of this season's elite teams.