Across The Commonwealth 10/19

10/19/2011 12:29 PM

U of L and UK both have their exhibition openers in the next two weeks, so we’ve officially hit football/basketball overlap. That means a lot of news and views floating around the Commonwealth, so here’s my take on all the hot topics:

The Charlie Strong contract extension

I’ve heard this question thrown out there quite a bit the last 24 hours: How can a coach with a 9-10 career record get rewarded with a new seven-year deal?
My answer? It’s all about timing. U of L’s conference situation is in flux. U of L athletics director Tom Jurich surely wants to present a stable program as the Cards position themselves for a possible move to the Big 12.
And the extension can help Strong rest easy on the recruiting trail. While the won-loss record isn’t sparkling, the one thing Strong has done is fill the roster with talented young players. And you know rivals were using the uncertainty of the Big East against Strong on the recruiting trail.

U of L’s conference future

Jurich was non-committal when asked about the Cards’ future. But us old sportswriters learn to read between the lines. One key two-word phrase kept coming out of Jurich’s mouth: Right now. Jurich went to that well at least four times in speaking with reporters on Tuesday. “We want to be the best possibly can and enjoy the present that we have right now. “I think there is a lot of speculation out there right now.” “Our focus right now is on the Big East.” “What we do we’ll keep private right now.”
Translation: “We’re stuck in the Big East for the time being, or right now, but if Missouri leaves the Big 12 for the SEC, we’re outta here.”

Mitch Barnhart’s vote of confidence for Joker Phillips

In many ways, I admire Barnhart for standing up for his embattled coach. Barnhart and Phillips have had a close relationship, and Barnhart wants him to succeed. I don’t think the relationship between Barnhart and former coach Rich Brooks ended on the greatest of terms, but Barnhart did stick by Brooks when many fans wanted him out the door.
That being said, I question the timing of Barnhart’s proclamation. Fan unrest is the highest its been since the end of the Bill Curry era. Stand by your man, no question. But even if you know Phillips is coming back, why not just let the rest of the season play out? No need to further infuriate a fan base that has stood by the program through some grimy periods.
After the Cats lost to Louisville, Phillips stated, “Come talk to me when we’re 2-10.” Well, what if that happens? (I don’t think it will, but it’s not out of the question). Barnhart will then have painted himself into a corner.

Over-under on attendance at Commonwealth Stadium for Saturday’s game with Jacksonsville State

Hmmm.. Let’s see… The forecast calls for sunny temperatures in the 60’s. In this corner, you’ve got the last day of the Keeneland fall meet. In the other corner, you’ve got a football team that the fan base has given up on against an FCS opponent. I’ll take Keeneland by TKO. As for the actual attendance, I’ll go with 45,000, which would easily be the lowest since the stadium was expanded in 1999.
On that note, if you want to gauge whether Phillips is really in trouble or not, start looking at the attendance figures. Athletic departments are notorious for padding attendance totals, but when they start announcing how many people are really in the stands, you know a coach is pretty much done: The announced attendance figures for Curry’s last three home games at UK: 34,000, 26,500, and 33,000. It must be noted that Curry was a lame duck at that point, but also look at the last two U of L coaches to get fired: Ron Cooper and Steve Kragthorpe. Cooper’s last two crowds at Old Cardinal Stadium were announced at 21,432 and 12,850. Kragthorpe’s home finale drew a measly 23,422.

Jacksonville State’s upset chances

Eyebrows were raised when Danny Sheridan mistakenly installed Jacksonville State as a 9-point favorite. What’s amazing about that is how many assumed the point-spread was accurate. Even UK running back Raymond Sanders admitted as much. A JSU win is certainly not out of question. Under normal circumstances, even the worst BCS programs would be one-to-two touchdown favorites over an FCS program. But these aren’t normal circumstances. Something’s clearly not right with UK. They don’t have great talent, but they should be playing much better than they have played thus far. Just keep in mind, if Western Kentucky’s Kawaun Jakes could have thrown a penny into the ocean and Central Michigan Coach Dan Enos hadn’t made that boneheaded fourth-down call, the Cats could very well be looking at 0-6. This one will be a hard-fought, tooth-and-nail contest, but I’ll take the Cats 17-13.

Strong casts lot with Bridgewater

Lost amid the contract extension, the Mike Sanford departure and the Big East/Big 12 is U of L’s quarterback situation. Back when Will Stein was first injured against UK, Strong said that he didn’t believe a quarterback should lose his job to injury. Fast forward three games and Strong has made it clear that Bridgewater is the man.
Bridgewater looks like a future star, and with bowl contention for the Cards looking iffy at best, no one can blame Strong for getting his five-star recruit valuable experience. But one can’t help but feel for Stein, who came to U of L as a walk-on, waited for his opportunity, and then earned the job in spring practice and fall camp. And it’s not like Stein played poorly while he was in there. If the Cardinal offense continues to labor, I expect Stein to get some opportunities to win some games for U of L down the stretch.

Cal bullish on the Cats

Judging from his comments on Coachcal.com, UK Coach John Calipari likes what he sees thus far from his young team. And why shouldn’t he? I haven’t seen them in person yet, but I’ve talked to many people who’ve seen workouts who think that Cal has assembled a group more talented than the Wall/Cousins ensemble. I too believe that this will be Cal’s best chance at a national championship. But just for fun, let’s play devil’s advocate and discuss what is my biggest question mark for this team: Toughness, which to me was one of the keys to last year’s Final Four run. DeAndre Liggins gave the team an edge with his defense and bravado. Josh Harrellson was the enforcer (I still can’t believe how he punked Jared Sullinger in that Sweet 16 game). And Liggins and Brandon Knight made clutch shots. The Cats have all-world talent, but to win a national title these roles will have to be adequately filled.

Cards need star power

Lots of varying opinions on U of L’s fortunes for 2011-12. Some are thinking Final Four. Others are less optimistic. The Cards will be good. But just how good depends a lot on freshmen Wayne Blackshear and Chane Behanan. The Cards were a good team last year, but it’s lack of star power eventually caught up with them in the NCAA Tournament. To be great, they need Blackshear and Behanan to step in and perform like McDonald’s All-Americans. Peyton Siva looks ready to be an elite point guard, and guys like Kyle Kuric, Chris Smith and Gorgui Dieng are solid role players. In order to get past the first weekend, though, the Cards need at least one or two studs who can put the team on their backs in tight situations. It’s what every championship-caliber team has. A red flag has already gone up with Blackshear, who reported to camp overweight after sitting out with a shoulder injury, and is now waiting on academic clearance from the NCAA.

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