Sunday, February 9, 2020

Tennessee 64 - 77 Kentucky (No. 2,311)

This is the 46th season in which I have rooted for the Kentucky Wildcats, and the 45th season in which the Wildcats have traveled to Knoxville for a game against the Tennessee Volunteers.  (They didn't have to go there in 2014 as part of a scheduling experiment that I really liked -- but which UT quickly had changed.)

Everyone has their own theory about UK and rivalries.  All the folks in the Bluegrass really get fired up for Louisville, and used to get fired up for Indiana.  I don't know anyone who roots for Louisville, and I'm happy we no longer have to play Indiana.  For me, there are three great rivals:  North Carolina, Duke, and Tennessee.  In my lifetime, Kentucky has never played a game at Duke, and the Cats rarely go to Chapel Hill.  But every year they go to Tennessee, and so for me this is usually the most emotional game of the year -- the game I personally want to win more than any other.  Even when Tennessee was terrible, back in the 1990's, and Pitino went down there and crushed them, I still enjoyed it every single time.

Here's the thing:  it is brutally hard for the Cats to win in Knoxville, no matter who plays for Tennessee:

The 1984 Final Four team lost there by five points in a game where Kentucky shot 8 free throws, and UT shot 22.  Kenny Walker, Sam Bowie and Dickie Beal all fouled out.

The Unforgettables lost there 107-85 in a game where Kentucky shot 33 free throws, and UT shot FIFTY-NINE.  Kentucky was whistled for 41 fouls in that game.  Jamal Mashburn, Dale Brown, Deron Feldhaus, Travis Ford (who only played six minutes), and Junior Braddy all fouled out.

The 1993 Final Four team lost there by one point in a game where UK led 77-74 with 6 seconds to go.  The Cats fouled Allen Houston to prevent him from shooting a three-pointer.  Houston made the first free throw, missed the second on purpose, the Vols got the rebound, they scored and were fouled, and then they made the free throw.  Four points on one play.  Two weeks later UT came to Rupp Arena for the SEC Tournament and the Cats beat them 101-40.  Pitino never lost another game to UT in his time at Kentucky.  The SEC Tournament has never returned to Rupp Arena.

The 2010 Wall/Cousins team lost there in a game where the Cats went 2-22 from three-point range, thus previewing their ultimate demise against West Virginia.

The 2017 Fox/Monk team lost there 82-80 as part of a four-game losing streak in Knoxville that led up to yesterday's game.

On the other hand, here are two facts about UK's visit to Knoxville:  all eight of UK's national champions won in Knoxville.  And all three Calipari teams that won in Knoxville (2011, 2012, and 2015) went to the Final Four.  It's an important game.  For me, I've come to see it as symbolic of each team's approach to basketball.

What it reminds me of, more than anything, is the old compulsory events that they used to have to do in figure skating.  Many years ago, when figure skating first became an Olympic sport, the idea was that you would actually make these complex figures on the ice -- not just figure eights, but all sorts of loops and patterns.  And for decades -- into the 1980's -- you still had to do them.  So you would do the short program and the long program, much like they do now.  But before you did those, you had to go into a mostly-empty arena with a bunch of judges, and trace your figures.

Over time, of course, there were lots of complaints about the compulsory figures.  Even ABC couldn't make them into good television, and the announcers were always having to explain why certain skaters who weren't as good at freestyle skating had a lot of points from the compulsory event.  So eventually they were eliminated.

Now for most of the year Kentucky gets to play what I think of as freestyle basketball.  People run, and jump, and dunk, and athleticism and speed play a big part of the game.  Most of the time, if your guys can run faster and jump higher than the other team, you will win.  But the folks who run the Southeastern Conference think that if you want to win on the road, it's not enough to be the better team.  As a visiting team, you should be held to a higher standard.  Any hesitation with your feet is likely to be called a travel.  Any awkwardness in the lane quickly becomes a charge.  To most of us fans, it looks exactly like home cooking -- and I really think that's what it is.  And, of course, no team benefits from it as much as UT does when it plays UK.

Lots of Kentucky teams -- like the ones referenced above -- can't stand it.  They lose their tempers.  They take bad shots.  They commit silly fouls.  And the next thing you know, you've lost again.

But I think Coach Calipari -- like any great coaches -- has a different view.  I have no doubt that Calipari knows much more about bad officiating than I do, and one of the most important things he knows about it is that you have to accept it and move on.  And by "move on," I mean play with so much crispness and purity that there's just not that much for the officials to call.  At the same time, you simply must avoid taking bad shots -- you have to keep attacking the rim, over and over, and put pressure on the officials to call the game both ways.  So you see, going to Tennessee is like a compulsory exercise for basketball.  You need to play with incredible discipline, you have to be aggressive (but not awkward) in going after loose balls, and you have to shoot well.  If you think about it like that, it's no wonder that so many UK teams fail, and that the ones who succeed have an extra level of mental toughness.

This was the fourth Saturday in a row that the Cats have been in a very hostile environment.  They won at Arkansas on January 18.  Then they won at Texas Tech on January 25.  Then they lost at Auburn on February 1 in a game where the Tigers shot 44 free throws -- the most free throws shot in any SEC game all year.  (The Cats shot only 24.) And now it was time for UT.

It took UK a while to get used to the situation -- they made a number of early free throws, and were called for lots of fouls.  But UT wasn't able to take advantage of the situation, and the Cats were playing with a sort of controlled rage -- a quiet determination to avoid mistakes -- that they had previously shown only against Louisville.  For example, at Auburn they could never get the ball to Nick Richards in a position to score, and the guards missed all sorts of flying shots near the basket.  They made only 14-33 two-pointers in Auburn, with Richards going 3-8 and Maxey going 3-9.  But at Tennessee, they were getting good shots on almost every position.  Maxey was using his speed to go around the UT defenders so quickly that they couldn't draw the usual charging calls.  Immanuel Quickley was making those little floaters in the lane that he likes to make.  And Richards went 5-5 from the floor, as he consistently dominated near the basket.

Besides, the Cats had Johnny Juzang.  We were told, at the beginning of the season, that Juzang was supposed to be a good three-point shooter.  And so far, we have been disappointed.  Going into Saturday's game, he was 5-25 from three-point range.  But he's been getting better, and yesterday he was spectacular.  In 24 minutes, he went 3-3 from three point range, made two free throws, and had a huge putback off of a free throw missed by Richards.

The Cats also had Keion Brooks.  All year, I've been trying to understand why we recruited a 6' 7" player who can't shoot very well.  But yesterday, I could see it -- in 26 minutes, he played great defense and had 9 huge rebounds.  He was particularly good at scooping up those rebounds in the last few minutes when Tennessee was trying to come from behind and was throwing everyone at the basket in an effort to get second chance point.

And so Kentucky took a 37-30 lead the half, and then defended that lead the rest of the way.  Time and again the Vols would get to within four points, or five points, and the folks in Knoxville would be screaming themselves hoarse with rage against the hated Cats.  But for once, UK didn't fold, didn't take (very many) bad shots, didn't get distracted by the noise, or the officials, or the pressure.  They only shot ten three-point shots, of which they made five.  The last one they took came from Immanuel Quickley with the score 68-61 and less than two minutes remaining.  It gave UK a 10-point lead and let us know that the four-year losing streak in Knoxville was finally over.  The Cats had passed the test.

Now this victory doesn't necessarily mean that the Cats will have a great season.  After all, one of the best games UK has ever played in Knoxville happened in 2009 when Jodie Meeks scored 54 points in a 90-72 victory.  That victory gave UK a record of 2-0 in the SEC and 13-4 overall.  They got to 5-0 in the SEC, and 16-4 overall, before losing eight of their last 11 games and costing Billy Gillispie his job.  But I don't think that will happen this year.  In the meantime, let's enjoy the rare sight of a 13-point win in Knoxville.  We don't get too many of those.

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic.

    Tom Leach noted quickly after this game that UK had gone 3-1 in this stretch of Saturday road games that you also noted.