Saturday, November 26, 2016

Kentucky 111 - 76 UT Martin (No. 2,211)

OK, I'm going to be honest here.  I have never actually recovered from that loss to Wisconsin at the end of the 2015 season.  I was all brave on this blog, and wrote a lot of stuff about how great the team was, and proud of them I was, and how much I enjoyed the season, and blah, blah, blah.  And nothing I wrote wasn't true.  But what I didn't say -- because it just hurt too much -- is that losing that game was one of the absolute worst experiences of my life as a fan.  I'm not as young as I used to be, and it's harder to bounce back from these sorts of things.  For five months in late 2014 and 2015, I saw Kentucky do something I had always wanted to see.  They won every game.  THEY WON EVERY GAME.  All the non-conference games.  All the rivalry games.  All the road games.  All the SEC games.  All the games in the SEC tournament.  All the games in the NCAA Midwest Regional.  EVERY SINGLE GAME.  Thirty-eight games in a row.  They were the best team in the country.  They may have been the best team I've ever seen.

Consider these facts.  In 2012, Kentucky won the national championship with one of the greatest teams it ever had.  That team had an offensive efficiency of 119.6, and defensive efficiency of 87.1 -- a difference of 32.5.  The 2015 team had an offensive efficiency of 119.4, and defensive efficiency of 82.5 -- a difference of 36.9.  That's an enormous difference.  Last year, Villanova had the biggest gap in the country, and their difference between offensive and defensive efficiency was 32.

The point is this:  we weren't just kidding ourselves.  By any measure, the 2014-15 Kentucky Wildcats were one of the best teams in basketball history.  But like the 1974-75 Indiana Hoosiers and the 1990-91 UNLV Runnin' Rebels, they did not win the title.  Of course, Indiana won it all in 1976, and UNLV had won the title in 1990, so those teams did get to claim a title.  We had a run to the finals in 2014, and a heartbreaking loss in the semi-finals in 2015.  It hurt a lot.

Since then, I've been a pretty bad fan.  I should have watched more games last year, because I really liked those players, but I just couldn't take the losses.  And it's good that I didn't watch them, because losing that game to Indiana in the second round of the tournament just about killed me, even though I didn't see it.  I hate Indiana.  If I'd had to sit through that game, and watch Kentucky lose because Jamal Murray went 1-9 from three-point range, I may never have watched basketball again.

As it was, I watched almost no college basketball last year, because the whole season was poisoned by UNC's dominance.  I thought UNC was going to win the title right up until Villanova's shot win in at the buzzer to beat them, so I couldn't enjoy any part of the season.

Anyway, this year I still haven't watched much of the Cats.  I know they're supposed to be good, and I know the AP has them number 1, but according to Ken Pomeroy the two best teams in the country are Duke, Virginia, and UNC.  (Pomeroy has UK ranked number 5.)  So I'm very worried.

On the other hand, I can remember a lot of years where UK wasn't nearly this good.  Furthermore, the Cats so far are playing really fast.  The first year Calipari was in Lexington, he had John Wall, and the Cats were 65th in the nation in tempo.  In the six seasons that followed, they played at a much more temperate pace:

2011:  203d in tempo
2012:  147
2013:  168
2014:  221
2015:  271
2016:  220

But so far this year, the Cats are 29th in tempo.  They are also 12th in turnovers caused -- and that's not a statistic where Calipari's teams usually do well.  So this is an attacking, pressing team unlike most of the others he has fielded so far.  That will change somewhat, as playing tougher opponents will undoubtedly force a slower pace.  But for now, the Cats look like a fun and exciting team.

Last night they followed up a 101-70 win over Cleveland State with a 111-76 win over UT-Martin.  The 111 points against UT-Martin was the most points any UK team has scored with Calipari on the bench.  These two games also represent the first time the Cats have scored 100 points in back-to-back games since these two games:

03/25/1993:  Kentucky 103 - 69 Wake Forest (NCAA Tournament) (Charlotte, N.C.)
03/27/1993:  Kentucky 106 - 81 Florida St. (NCAA Tournament) (Charlotte, N.C.)

Those are the two games that put UK back in the Final Four for the first time since 1984, and they were -- and are -- two of my favorite games the Cats ever played.  Of course, the next game looked like this:

04/03/1993:  Kentucky 78 - 81 Michigan (OT) (NCAA Tournament) (New Orleans)

Ever since 1975, when UK's big win over Indiana led to a loss in the final against UCLA, I've known that this is the deal.  To truly enjoy the wins, you have to be willing to risk the losses.  For a few months in 2014 and 2015, the Cats seemed to have escaped that rule, and I felt an almost god-like power in watching them play.  But the very first lesson in the Bible is that we are not gods, and we are not meant to be gods.  There's always a price to pay.  And now, for the first time in almost two years, I'm starting to feel like a fan again.

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