Sunday, March 23, 2014

Kentucky 56 - 49 Kansas St. (NCAA Tournament) (St. Louis) (No. 2,136)

There's been a lot of talk about whether Coach Cal instituted a "tweak" after UK was blown out in Gainesville in the last game of the regular season.  I don't know enough about basketball to say whether there's been any change in Kentucky's scheme.  What I can say, however, is that the last four games have seen UK play hard-nosed defense with a consistency we haven't seen very often during the regular season.  A few weeks ago, UK's defensive efficiency was somewhere in the 40's; as of this morning they are number 21.

Their defense was the key to what turned out to be a relatively easy victory over Kansas State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament Friday night.  Look at K-State's numbers:

2-point shooting:  14-32 (43.8 percent)
3-point shooting:  5-21 (23.8 percent)
Assists:  8
Turnovers:  10

The Blue Wildcats also out-rebounded the Purple Wildcats by 40 to 28.

The result of all this was that K-State managed only 49 points in 61 possessions, and eight of those points came in the last minute.  (UK led 54-41 with 52 seconds to play).

Kentucky's offense continues to fluctuate from game to game, depending in large part on whether the Cats are making their three's.  Against K-State UK was cold from the outside, making only 4 of 15 three-pointers.  All year that has meant that the Cats were in for a long, grinding day on offense -- unless they can get a lot of free throws.  But the NCAA Tournament is being called in accord with the "no blood, no foul" mindset that has dominated post-season basketball in recent years, so UK shot only 21 free throws despite being fouled about 890 times.

Fortunately, the Cats didn't let any of it get them down.  Julius Randle was particularly good, with 19 points and 15 rebounds, while Aaron Harrison chipped in 18 points of his own.  Mostly, the Cats just kept playing hard on defense, which prevented K-State from ever presenting much of a threat.

Some people were upset that UK didn't blow out K-State by 20 points or more.  But UK hasn't blown out very many teams all year.  This was very much the sort of grinding win that we've seen a lot of in games where the Cats weren't getting to the line or making their threes.

I also think the Cats weren't very impressed by K-State.  UK led 29-17 late in the first half, and I think from that point on the UK players never felt that this game was at risk.  We've seen many times this year that UK tends to play its best when it's in trouble, and K-State never put them in trouble.  I find this frustrating, but as the father of teenage boys it doesn't surprise me.  And I could sort of see their point:  personally, I did not think Kansas State was as good as Arkansas, LSU, or Missouri.  They reminded me a lot of Georgia.  It makes me think that our schedule has been harder than most folks realize.

Anyway, next up the Cats get to play a great team -- one of the best teams in the whole country.  All over America, people will tune in hoping to see Coach Cal and the boys be taught a lesson in "sound, fundamental basketball" by the stolid burghers from Wichita State.  CBS will be looking for shots of our guys getting beat on back-door layups or complaining to the officials after Wichita tricks them into another turnover.

But I don't mind.  UK plays about 35-40 basketball games a year, and most of them don't seem to matter all that much, unless you're a huge fan like me.  Much of the season consists of watching UK work its way through the same collection of SEC opponents that I've been watching since I was nine years old.  I find it hard to watch these games, and I don't imagine they're too much fun to play, either.  So every year, I hope that the Cats will get far enough into the tournament to play a game that really matters -- a game with potentially historic consequences.  Today we get such a game.  UK hasn't played an NCAA Tournament game against an undefeated opponent since the Cats beat Indiana in 1975.  If they win today, they will get the spotlight that all UK fans crave.  If not, then at least they were eliminated by a great team.

Jerry Izenberg, in his masterpiece Championship (the history of the NFL title game), tells a story about what happened before Maryland played Tennessee in the 1952 Sugar Bowl:

Jim Tatum, the Maryland coach, had walked into the dressing room that day . . . and he had said, "Gentlemen, Tennessee is number one and we are number three.  Now I never wanted to be the toughest kid on my block.  All I wanted to do was find him and knock the tar out of him."  Maryland did just that.

Today the Cats are getting their chance against one of the toughest kids on the block.  Let's see what happens.

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