Friday, November 8, 2019

Catching Up with the Big Blue

If you read this blog, you know that I have a great deal of interest in the University of Kentucky basketball program.  Here's what the Cats have done in each of the last three years:

In 2016-17, Kentucky had a wonderful team led by three outstanding freshmen:  Malik Monk, De'Aaron Fox, and Edrice ("Bam") Adebayo.  Monk was the rare Kentucky player who can really shoot, Fox was a great point guard, and Adebayo had a dominant presence inside.  Together, they were a joy to watch.  The Cats went 26-5 overall, and 16-2 in the SEC.  (They would have done even better, but they lost three games when Fox was hurt.)  They rolled through the SEC Tournament, and entered the NCAA's as the number-2 seed in the South.  In the second round, they had to play a red-hot Wichita State team that was 31-4 and had lost only one game since December 17.  The NCAA, in its wisdom, decided that the Shockers (who KenPom ranked as the number-7 team in the country) were a 7 seed.  The Cats survived them, winning 65-62.  Then UK had to play a UCLA team that was led by Lonzo Ball.  The Bruins had beaten UK in Rupp in early December, as Ball torched the UK defense, and UCLA was also 31-4 at the tip-off.  The Cats won that game 86-75 as Fox completely dominated Ball.  So the Cats then had to play UNC, the number-one seed.  Earlier in the year, UK had beaten UNC 103-100 out in Las Vegas -- in one of the best regular season Kentucky games I've ever seen.  These were clearly the two best teams in the country, and it was ludicrous that they were meeting in the regional final.  Then everything quickly became more ludicrous, because John Higgins started blowing fouls all over the place.  Fox was out for most of the first half, and only played 28 minutes in the game.  Monk also battled foul trouble, and only played 30 minutes.  Even with all of that, the Cats led 64-59 with 5:10 to go -- only to have possession after possession ruined by a UNC defense that was allowed to hack and foul without impunity.  In a long life of complaining about the officiating, this game was the single worst officiated game I have ever seen.  UNC won 75-73, UK fans went online and tried to destroy Higgins's roofing business in Nebraska, and I will go to my grave believing that UK was the best team in the country that year.

In 2017-18, Kentucky started over.  The stars on this team were Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kevin Knox, and P.J. Washington.  My favorite player on the team was Jarred Vanderbilt, a Dennis Rodman-type who was the best rebounder I've ever seen at Kentucky.  In 27 minutes against Missour, he had 15 rebounds.  In 24 minutes against Ole Miss, he had 11 rebounds.  He did that sort of thing all the time -- it was amazing to watch.  But he didn't play at all until January 16, due to injuries, and his last game of the year was March 3.  He was hurt for the tournaments, and didn't play in them at all.  The remaining Cats struggled for much of the year, going 21-10 in the regular season and 10-8 in the SEC.  But they put it all together for the SEC Tournament, beating Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee to win that tourney for the fourth year in a row.  Their reward was a 5 seed in the NCAA's.  They beat Davidson in the first round, and rolled over Buffalo (who had upset Arizona) in the second round.  Now they were in the Sweet 16, and the top seeds in their region had all been eliminated.  To reach the Final Four, they only needed to beat Kansas State and Loyola of Chicago.  But in the game against K-State, they immediately fell behind 13-1 and spent the rest of the night trying to catch up.  They eventually led 57-56 with less than two minutes to go, but their offense collapsed down the stretch, and K-State won 61-58.  P.J. Washington went 8 of 20 from the free throw line in this game, which was easily the difference in the game.  In a lifetime of complaining about UK's free throw shooting, that game was one of the most painful to watch.

In 2018-19, Kentucky had a much better team.  Washington was back, and now the Cats had added Tyler Herro (a ruthless shooting guard from Wisconsin), Keldon Johnson (another shooting guard), and Reid Travis (a senior transfer from Stanford).  This team was famously humiliated by Duke in the first game of the year, losing 118-84 in one of the worst games ever played by the Big Blue.  Then they had hard-luck defeats to Seton Hall and Alabama.  But then they got on a roll, winning nine straight before losing to LSU on a basket that should have been waved off for offensive goal-tending.  Then they whacked Tennessee 86-69, and appeared to be in good shape -- until Reid Travis was hurt in an absurdly violent game against Missouri.  He was never the same, and the Cats weren't either -- although they were still very good.  This team was one of the smartest teams the Cats have had, and they were unusually good in close games.  They finished 26-5 in the regular season, and 15-3 in the SEC.  In the semi-finals of the SEC tournament, they led Tennessee 72-64 with less than three minutes to go -- but some horrific officiating and a bunch of three's allowed the Vols to score EIGHTEEN POINTS in the last 2:58 of the game.  You won't see that very often.  So UK lost 82-78.  Then the Cats went to the NCAA's as a number-2 seed.  In the second round, they faced a Wofford team that was 30-4 and was riding a 21-game winning streak.  The Cats outlasted them 62 to 56.  Next up the Cats drew Houston, who was 33-3.  The Cats survived this game, 62 to 58, thanks in large part to a huge three-pointer by Herro in the last minute.  Now UK had to beat Auburn to reach the Final Four.  Bruce Pearl's guys were on an unbelievable run, having crushed UT in the SEC final, and then rolled over Kansas and UNC (!) to make the Elite Eight.  It was a great game in a great tournament, but the difference was that Auburn had the better guards.  Jared Harper and Bryce Brown combined for 50 points, while Herro and Johnson combined for 21.  The Cats went 5-21 from three-point range, and 12-21 from the line, which were devastating.  P.J. Washington -- coming back from an injury -- almost carried the Cats to the Final Four on his own.  He had 28 points and 13 rebounds.  But he went 6-11 from the line, and those misses were critical, as the Cats lost 77-71 in overtime.  Since 1983, the Cats have gone 0-4 in overtime games in the Elite Eight.

So it was a hard-fought three years, and ultimately years that were disappointing.  We Kentucky fans don't go into the season looking for moral victories.  But the Cats made three trips to the Sweet 16, and two to the Elite Eight, and that's a record that is very difficult to match.  Here's the bottom line:

2016-17 team:  A great team, one of my favorites, and the best team in the country at the end of the year.  They were robbed by poor officiating.

2017-18 team:  A scrappy, hard-working team without a great deal of talent.  Probably over-achieved by winning the SEC Tournament and getting to the Sweet 16, but under-achieved by losing to K-State.

2018-19 team:  A smart, savvy team that definitely had a chance to win a wide-open tournament, but which probably wasn't of true Final Four caliber.  On the other hand, losing to a conference foe, in overtime, in the Elite Eight, is a very painful way to end your season.

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