Photo credit Mark Kuhlmann/NCAA
(LEXINGTON, Ky.) – It’s Not Xs and Os, It’s JIMMYs and JOEs.
The more I cover college sports, the more I feel that adage applies. Because when it comes to winning and losing ballgames, it’s ultimately the talent level that matters.
We’ve seen it with UK Basketball. You put Anthony Davis on any one of John Calipari’s other Kentucky teams, and the Wildcats would most likely be hoisting multiple championship banners.
Similarly, Kentucky Football suddenly jumped up the SEC food chain when Mark Stoops and Vince Marrow started convincing star-studded recruits that Lexington was the place to be.
Now, with UK Volleyball, we’re also seeing the fruits of all of Coach Craig Skinner’s recruiting labor.
“You have to have a baseline of talent to be good in anything,” Skinner answered, when asked to choose between talent and experience. “I’d still choose talent. But experience is a huge layer of icing on your cake to help solidify a product you’re trying to deliver in the athletic arena. The combination of the two helps. It’s something we felt like at the beginning of last March that it would be a benefit to us that we do have skilled players, that we do have talent—but the experience is a bonus.”
And boy, does Skinner have talent this year. Just look at the litany of accolades and awards garnered by this current crop of volleyball savants.
Madison Lilley, SEC Player of the Year, All-SEC, AVCA All-Southeast Region Player of the Year, AVCA first-team All-American
Gabby Curry, SEC Libero of the Year, All-SEC, AVCA All-Southeast Region, AVCA third-team All-American
Alli Stumler, All-SEC, AVCA All-Southeast Region, AVCA first-team All-American
Avery Skinner, All-SEC, AVCA All-Southeast Region, AVCA first-team All-American
Madi Skinner, All-SEC and All-Freshman Team, AVCA All-Southeast Region, AVCA honorable mention All-American
Azhani Tealer, All-SEC, AVCA All-Southeast Region, AVCA second-team All-American
Take all that talent, mix in a solid dose of senior leadership, sprinkle in a hefty dose of team chemistry, put it all in the capable hands of Skinner—the SEC Co-Coach of the Year and the AVCA All-Southeast Region Coach of the Year—and you’ve got a team that’s in the hunt for their first national championship.
For those just jumping on the volleyball bandwagon, No. 2—seeded Kentucky faces the No. 6—seeded Washington Huskies in the national semifinals this Thursday at 7 p.m. ET. The match will be broadcast live on ESPN from the CHI Health Center Arena in Omaha, Nebraska.
Kentucky is appearing in the Final Four for the first time in program history. The Wildcats have imposed their will in all three of their tournament matchups to date—UNLV, Western Kentucky, and Purdue—having not dropped a set on their march toward a long-awaited championship. Should they get past the Huskies on Thursday, either fourth-ranked Texas or top-ranked Wisconsin awaits on the other side of the bracket.
Why is this groundbreaking Kentucky team so special?
“We don’t settle,” said Alli Stumler. “It’s just really a determined group. Obviously, we have great depth, we have great talent [and] determination…The determination and grit that this team has, it’s so contagious. For the seniors and the leadership to just push that and expect that from everyone is awesome.”
That’s all fine and dandy, but with all due respect, the determination, the leadership, the experience—and even the coaching—on this team are all secondary factors. It’s ultimately the TALENT that trumps everything else. These girls can move fast, jump high, and hit hard. THEY’RE GOOD AT VOLLEYBALL. On most nights, they’re better than their opponents. That’s why they’ve made it this far.
It’s not Xs and Os, it’s JENNIFERs and FLOs.
You owe it to yourself to tune in, cheer them on, and hopefully celebrate that elusive national title.
Dr. John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Group Media and editor-in-chief of JustTheCats.com. His new book, CUT TO THE CHASE, is now available on Amazon. If you enjoy his writing, you can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.