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Post SEC honors Thompkins – what about Leslie and Calipari?

Wednesday March 10, 2010

Congratulations to Trey Thompkins – he’s Georgia’s first All-SEC first-teamer since Jarvis Hayes. He’s made the transition from promising freshman to legitimate SEC star, and he’d be in position to challenge for SEC player of the year honors if he returns next year.

I wondered why Travis Leslie didn’t make the second team, but I’m not bent out of shape about it. Leslie had his breakthrough season, and he’s positioned to be one of the league’s most visible players as long as he chooses to remain at Georgia. I think that visibility might have worked against him later in the season. Leslie’s eye-opening performances at Kentucky and against Tennessee in January set expectations as high as they were for anyone including Thompkins. It’s unfair to say that Travis faded down the stretch, but three of the four games this year in which he didn’t score in double figures came in the last weeks of the season. It also doesn’t help that his best late-season performance, at Vanderbilt, ended in a loss in which Leslie had a chance to win the game in regulation. There are an awful lot of quality players on that second team, and I can’t really quibble with any of those selections. Leslie would have been as good of a choice as most of them but not a heads-and-shoulders better choice.

I should also say something about the coach of the year selection. Chris Littmann smells a rat, and I’m finding it hard to disagree with him. Kevin Stallings and his team had a really nice season, but John Calipari turned in the best coaching job of the season.

The only argument to be made against Calipari is this: well of COURSE Kentucky finished first. My [sports-averse female relative] could have coached that bunch to an SEC title.

There’s something to that – the best coaching job isn’t necessarily done by the coach of the team that finishes first. Pat Summitt did another fine job leading Tennessee back to the top of the SEC on the women’s side, but the biggest accomplishment belonged to Matthew Mitchell who led Kentucky from a preseason forecast of 11th place to a solid second place finish. That was an exceptional coaching job, and – though Kentucky didn’t win the league – Mitchell was deservedly named the coach of the year.

It’s unwise to automatically dismiss a successful coach from a team loaded with talent. To begin with, it discounts the role of the coach in assembling that talent. We think of great coaches as those who could get the most out of any bunch of players, but championships are won by those who can teach the game and attract the highest quality of players. Wooden would have been a success anywhere, but you don’t have a dynasty without bringing men like Alcindor and Walton into the program. There’s a tendency for a coach with so much talent at his disposal to be disregarded as a caretaker with a just-don’t-screw-it-up mandate.

Even after you assemble a loaded roster you still have to get that talent to perform, understand roles, and buy into a system. It’s not a given. There is no shortage of analysis of what has gone wrong with the 16-15 North Carolina Tar Heels, but you don’t have to search very long to find a common theme: for whatever reasons a team loaded with 7 McDonald’s All-Americans was almost uncoachable. Calipari brought in a great recruiting class, meshed it with returning players like Patterson, and got a roster with one eye on the NBA committed to winning a title. As we discussed last week, Kentucky’s turnaround has been as much about defense as it has been about the entertaining offense. Changing a program’s culture in one season and persuading so many key newcomers to embrace the work and sacrifice required by high-level defense is a tremendous coaching job.

Vanderbilt had a good season probably highlighted by a sweep of Tennessee. I don’t want to diminish anything they’ve accomplished. They were picked to finish third in the SEC East. They finished second with a roster that returned its top four scorers and didn’t exactly feature scrubs – four Commodores earned some sort of postseason mention. Good results, good coaching, but hardly up to the level or impact we saw from what Calipari was able to accomplish in his first season.

SEE ALSO: Complete list of SEC basketball postseason honors

One Response to 'SEC honors Thompkins – what about Leslie and Calipari?'

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  • Travis Leslie deserved to be named 2nd team SEC not because of his flashy plays but because he’s a top SEC player in both scoring and rebounding. As Coach Fox said: “There were 16 guys named on the first and second team, and he’s in the [SEC’s] top 16 in both scoring and rebounding.”

    The fact that this was a breakthrough season for him is irrelevant. He deserves the honor because clearly he EARNED it.