Often these days, college basketball looks like -- to borrow a term from Jay Bilas -- a "rock fight." On offense, guys pass the ball around the perimeter for 25 seconds, then go one-on-one or shoot a three. Games are decided by who can get the most offensive rebounds and put backs, or who can generate the most turnovers. The players try hard, but they don't seem to know how to work together as a team. Notions like "hitting the open man" and "working for a good shot" seem almost obsolete.
So let's start by giving enormous credit to the Mighty Men of Indiana University, a team that has dragged Kentucky into a lot of rock fights over the years, but who played one of the prettiest games you will ever see last night. Anyone who remembers UK's 1992 team with Pelphrey, Feldhaus, Farmer, and Woods can't help but notice similarities between that team -- which re-started UK's program after the Eddie Sutton disaster -- and this IU team that returned the Hoosiers to the Sweet 16 for the first time in 10 years. All year, I think, most Kentucky fans have underrated Indiana because of their apparent lack of athleticism. But what makes basketball so great is that passing and shooting can offset speed and strength. A team that understands spacing, knows how to make crisp passes, and can actually shoot is extremely difficult to defend, no matter what the other side does. This was a great basketball team that showed all of the passion and intensity that we UK fans expect from our own players. They and their fans wanted this game about as badly as I can ever remember any team wanting to beat UK, and it would be churlish to say anything mean-spirited about them. I am not from the Midwest, I am not a Hoosier, and their ways are not my ways. But different isn't the same as wrong, and I found the effort of their team, their pride in their history, and their seriousness about the game to be very moving indeed. Kentucky's run to the Elite Eight in 1992 proved to be the beginning of a great era for the Cats, and IU fans have every reason to be optimistic.
But for now, Kentucky has the better team, and I couldn't be prouder of how UK played last night.
For some time, I've thought that Coach Calipari believes that the most likely way for another team to upset Kentucky this season is by hitting them with a barrage of three's. To prevent that, Kentucky has been extremely aggressive on the perimeter, regularly challenging guys who are 20 feet away from the goal. In terms of limiting three-point opportunities, this strategy has been effective; the Hoosiers went only 5-18 from behind the arc last night. But IU knew the three-point defense was coming, and they believed that if they could get Anthony Davis in foul trouble, the driving lanes left open by UK's perimeter defense could lead to a bushel of points. And this is exactly what happened. Davis picked up two fouls in less than seven minutes, and the Hoosiers drove to the basket over and over after he left. It would have been worse, but the officials -- who seemed completely overwhelmed by the pace and intensity of the game -- also forced Zeller and Victor Oladipo (my favorite IU player) to the bench with two fouls. Kentucky -- which was attacking the basket at every opportunity -- took advantage of their absence, spurting out to a 31-22 lead with 9:56 left in the first half on a spectacular alley-oop dunk from Terrence Jones.
But then IU called time and put Zeller back into the game, despite his two fouls. He only played two minutes, but this sparked the run IU fans had been dreaming of. Led by Christian Watford, who had 17 points in the first half, and who can make fall away jumpers like someone from 1973, the Hoosiers played incredibly well -- going on a 21-8 run to take a 43-39 lead. (At this point, CBS put up a graphic telling us that this was UK's biggest deficit in the tournament so far. Thanks, CBS.)
With 2:53 left in the first half, Watford was fouled and went to the line with a chance to put IU up six. He missed, and Darius Miller responded with a huge jump shot to bring UK within two. This seemed to steady the Cats, who outscored IU 11-4 in the last three minutes to take a 50-47 lead into the locker room. To me, that comeback at the end of the first half was the key point of the game. IU had all the momentum, UK had already played almost 10 minutes without Davis, and Calipari had already called several timeouts. If IU had gone into the locker room with six-seven point lead, as seemed likely, UK would have been in big trouble. As it was, the Cats and Hoosiers both knew that despite Davis's long absence, UK was on top.
Davis was back for the second half, and the Cats quickly shot out to a 59-51 lead. For the next ten minutes or so, the game stayed pretty much in that range. Indiana kept finding ways to pull Davis away from the goal and score, but UK kept punishing Indiana at the rim, as the slower IU players found it almost impossible to stop UK from driving, and as the Cats made enough three-pointers (5-10 for the night) to keep the Hoosiers from sagging off of them.
With 8:57 left, UK was up 79-66 and appeared to be in good shape, but IU rallied one more time to cut the lead to 82-77 with 5:14 to go. By this point, UK was trying to run time on offense, and I had nightmares of them going cold like they did against Vandy in the SEC Championship Game. But instead of settling for jump shots, they kept attacking the rim. Lamb was fouled by Oladipo -- which caused Oladipo to foul out and did grave damage to IU's offense. Lamb's two free throws to put UK up 84-77 with 4:49 left. Miller scored a driving layup to make it 86-77 with 3:58 left. And when Michael Kidd-Gilchrist made two free throws to put UK up 88-79 with only 2:50 remaining, IU's chances had finally expired.
The Hoosiers did everything they could, of course, fouling UK over and over down the stretch. But UK made an unbelievable 35-37 from the line last night, including 16 in a row to end the game, and so IU could never get closer than 8 points the rest of the way.
So in the end, the Cats showed that they are not merely athletes; they are very good at the fundamentals of basketball. UK went 31-64 from the field, 5-10 from behind the arc, and 35-37 from the line -- numbers matching the dream of every kid who ever spent the afternoon shooting hoops in his back yard. The Cats only had six turnovers, despite the frenetic pace of the game, and they outrebounded IU 39-31. Once again, they had shown an uncanny ability to adapt themselves to the pace and officiating. In Knoxville, where they were forced to play a violent game and baskets were scarce, they won 65-62. In a rock fight against Louisville back in December, they won 69-62. When they were sandbagged and left for dead in Starkville, they fought back to win 73-64. When Vandy shot the lights out in Lexington, UK won 83-74. And last night -- when the officials' propensity for touch fouls and IU's spectacular shooting (they made 52.2 percent of their shots for the game) made it extremely difficult to stop the Hoosiers, the Cats won 102-90. I have very rarely seen a more adaptable team.
Thanks to the officials, Anthony Davis didn't get to play much last night. But in 25 minutes he still scored 9 points and got 12 rebounds. The numbers for the other five mainstays were as spectacular as you would expect in such a high-scoring game:
MKG: 24 points (10-10 from the line), 10 rebounds
Lamb: 21 points (8-8 from the line)
Miller: 19 points (5-5 from the line)
Teague: 14 points (6-6 from the line), 7 assists, only 2 turnovers
Jones: 12 points, 5 rebounds in only 27 minutes due to foul trouble
When both teams are good, as they were this year, I think UK-IU is the best rivalry in college basketball. In fact, I consider the Hoosiers to be our only legitimate rivals -- the only program that comes close to matching the intensity of our fans, our love and knowledge of the game, and our long and successful history. But rivalry games in the tournament always make me nervous -- I hate the thought of putting more pressure on our players than they already bear. Coach Cal and the guys deserve enormous credit for handling a very difficult game so well. And we will hope that their nerves remain steady as we go forward.