By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer
Famous 19th century British author Robert Louis Stevenson would be proud of some of these Kentucky Wildcats. They are the epitome of his classic novel “Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”.
The story, as most of you probably know, revolves around a British aristocrat, Dr Jekyll, who is inherently good but when he wants to do evil deeds he drinks a serum that turns him into the evil Mr Hyde. The classic split personality. These Cats, as a team, almost perform as if, they too, have split personalities.
Take Tuesday night’s game against Vanderbilt for example. Kentucky won the game 78-64 in Nashville. But at halftime the men in blue trailed the Commodores 36-27. UK’s defense was lethargic, they missed open shots they normally make and ultimately they allowed Vandy to build as much as a 14 point lead by hitting 47% from three-point range on 8-17 shooting. Totally Mr Hyde. But in the second half Kentucky put the clamps down on defense , gave tremendous effort, got out in transition and outscored Jerry Stackhouse’s team 51-28 while holding Vanderbilt to 27% from three-point range and 36% overall. Performing like Dr Jekyll.
And then, looking at some of the individual players in the game one sees the same personality flip-flop. In the last game against Tennessee Keion Brooks Jr had 4 points and 9 rebounds and played a big part in the victory over the Volunteers. But Tuesday night against Vanderbilt he had 4 points and 3 rebounds and wasn’t much of a factor in the game. Jekyll and Hyde.
The same holds true for EJ Montgomery. Against Tennessee EJ was pretty much of a no-show. He had 2 points and 3 rebounds. But against Vandy Montgomery showed what type factor he could be in a game by scoring 6 points and grabbing 9 rebounds in 28 minutes of action. Another split personality.
Last but not least is Johnny Juzang. He was, like his counterparts Brooks and Montgomery, two different players in two different games. Juzang was a significant factor in UK’s victory in Knoxville against the Volunteers by chipping in 13 points and 1 rebound on a night when he was 4-4 shooting the ball and 2-2 from the free throw line. Against Vanderbilt those numbers reversed. He was 1-2 on field goals for 2 total points and 2 rebounds. Not a stellar outing for a guy that had been making strides each game.
So why the Jekyll and Hyde routine from three players that UK desperately needs to step up and play some consistent basketball? Unfortunately it seems that the answer is youth, immaturity or inexperience. Call it what you will but based on the performances of some of John Calipari’s previous players — including a couple on this team — guys seem to ride that emotional roller coaster of “how am I doing right now.” If their game starts out great, they hit a few shots or grab a couple of rebounds then they build confidence for the rest of the game but if, like Keion Brooks did against Vandy Tuesday night, they take a bad shot and miss it and then reach in and foul the opponent after they grab the rebound on the miss it seems like the air goes out of the balloon.
You can almost hear an audible hiss as Calipari berates the player from the sideline as that player hangs his head and then goes to sit on the bench with a blank stare in his eyes. And that’s no knock on Calipari. It happens on every team in the SEC on any given night. But because Kentucky recruits and plays so many players with high expectations and aspirations it becomes very easy for the players to get down on themselves after a couple of poor plays in a game. From there the roller coaster starts and younger players go on a Jekyll and Hyde transformation nightly.
The troubling part is — as with Nick Richards and Immanuel Quickley — there is no short cut or quick fix. Talented players have to spend time in the gym building their confidence, they have to become mentally tough enough to play through the mistakes and believe that they are good enough even when the “right now” results aren’t showing it. That’s not easy when millions of people are watching you perform nightly and expecting your best, and something goes wrong as it always will, but you have to continue to stick with your process and believe in yourself and what your coaches have taught you. It takes time and it takes maturity.
Unfortunately Calipari’s Cats don’t have a lot of time left. Nine conference games are left on the schedule and then the SEC Tournament begins. To be successful — meaning achieving a Final Four appearance or better — this team needs the Jekyll and Hyde performances to disappear and be replaced by consistent play from the team from half to half and game to game and they need their role players like Montgomery, Brooks and Juzang to realize that one bad play doesn’t make a game just as one bad game doesn’t make a career.
But that’s hard to realize if you are an 18-year old kid standing in front of millions of people watching you try to reach perfection — on a night when you miss a couple of shots and commit a stupid foul and would much rather just go back into the locker room and come out and start all over again.