Saturday, December 20, 2014

Kentucky 84 - 70 N. Carolina (No. 2,151)

Here's a great scene for the upcoming AMC show The Dream Game, which tells the story of Joe Hall's first six seasons at Kentucky:

On December 9, 1974, Joe Hall was in trouble.  His first season ended with UK losing to Indiana in the Elite Eight.  His second season was an utter disaster, as the Cats went 13-13.  Only three games into his third season, the Cats were blown out at Indiana, losing 98-74.  Now the Cats were in Louisville for a game with North Carolina, and the Tar Heels had a big early lead.  With his career on the line, Hall refused to back down.  He threw his jacket onto the floor, pulled his starters, and willed his team back into the contest.  Led by Jimmy Dan Connor's 35 points, the Cats roared back to beat UNC 90-78, and went all the to the National Championship game before losing to UCLA.  Hall's career was saved.

Tom Leach and Mike Pratt spent a fair amount of time on this story during their broadcast of the UK/UNC game, and I don't blame them -- it's a great story.  But I don't remember that game.  Instead, I remember what Dean Smith did in the next six times he played UK:

12/08/75:  N. Carolina 90 - 77 Kentucky (at Charlotte, N.C.)
03/19/77:  N. Carolina 79 - 72 Kentucky (NCAA East Regional Final) (at College Park, Md.)
12/26/81:  N. Carolina 82 - 69 Kentucky (at E. Rutherford, N.J.)
12/27/89:  Kentucky 110 - 121 N. Carolina (at Louisville)
12/10/90:  N. Carolina 84 - 81 Kentucky
03/25/95:  Kentucky 61 - 74 N. Carolina (NCAA Southeast Regional Final) (at Birmingham, Ala.)

Dean went 13-3 in his career against UK, winning those last six games in a row,

As you can imagine, that sort of history can give a fan a bit of a complex.  I never saw UK beat UNC until I was 34 years old, and Tubby Smith won the first of three easy victories in a row over Carolina teams coached by Matt Doherty.  Those games were fun, but beating Matt Doherty didn't really feel like beating Carolina.  Sure enough, Doherty was soon replaced by Roy Williams, and he quickly turned the series around:

01/03/04:  Kentucky 61 - 56 N. Carolina
12/04/04:  N. Carolina 91 - 78 Kentucky
12/03/05:  Kentucky 79 - 83 N. Carolina
12/02/06:  N. Carolina 75 - 63 Kentucky
12/01/07:  Kentucky 77 - 86 N. Carolina
11/18/08:  N. Carolina 77 - 58 Kentucky

So at this point in my life I was 42 years old, and I had seen UK go 1-11 against Carolina teams coached by Dean Smith and Roy Williams, with the Cats' only victory having taken place in Williams's first rebuilding season.  I can still remember having a long conversation with Matthew during that 2008 game, in which I berated Billy Gillespie, the UK Athletic Department, and everyone else in Kentucky (up to and including the Governor, I think) for allowing UK basketball to fall into such an embarrassing state.  Meanwhile, Carolina went on to capture the 2008-09 National Title.

But the gap between UNC and UK had finally grown too large, even for the folks in Lexington, and they went out and hired John Calipari.  Since he arrived, this series -- so often marred by blowouts in the past -- has crackled with energy:

12/05/09:  Kentucky 68 - 66 N. Carolina
12/04/10:  N. Carolina 75 - 73 Kentucky
03/27/11:  N. Carolina 69 - 76 Kentucky (NCAA East Regional Final, Newark, N.J.)
12/03/11:  Kentucky 73 - 72 N. Carolina
12/14/13:  N. Carolina 82 - 77 Kentucky

This was much better stuff, but these were difficult, nerve-wracking games to watch.

All of this is to say that I enormously enjoyed Saturday's 84-70 win over UNC.  For the first time since Joe Hall's win back in 1974 (unless you count those blowouts over Matt Doherty), the Cats beat UNC with relatively little drama.  Oh, I still got nervous, but then again I'm a raging pessimist.  To everyone else, UK was clearly the better team.

There are many things I don't like about UNC, but one thing I do like is that most of the time, the Heels like to play fast.  They burned UK on a few transition baskets early on, and they were the first good team all year who really tried to run with the Big Blue.  The Heels also shot it well -- they went 6-13 from three-point range -- and they became the first team all year to score 70 points against the Cats.  UNC was also the first team this season to score more than one point per possession against UK.  So UK couldn't just grind out a win; they would have to score.

And score they did.  It was a joy to watch the Kentucky offense come to life.  Aaron Harrison, who had been struggling with his outside shot for most of the season, made three three-pointers to help stake UK to a 49-35 lead at the half.  Devin Booker, who sometimes looks like the best shooter UK's ever had, went 3-3 from outside, scoring 15 points in only 21 minutes.  Tyler Ulis, who is already one of my favorite players, zipped up and down the floor with great aplomb, repeatedly torching UNC's efforts to pressure the ball.  He dished out 8 assists in almost 24 minutes, and reminded me of the critical difference between a good passer and a great passer.  Meanwhile, Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson went 8-12 (!!) from the free throw line, as they put together the following line over their combined 40 minutes:  22 points, 11 rebounds, 4 blocks, 7 steals.  Those are Anthony Davis-like numbers.

All in all, I thought it was the best game the Cats have played all year -- even without Alex Poythress, who will be greatly missed, or Kyle Wiltjer, who looks unstoppable so far with Gonzaga.  On paper, UK's blowout win against Kansas is more impressive, but the Jayhawks missed a ton of open shots in that game.  Carolina was big, and fast, and talented, and I thought they played pretty well -- and they still lost by 14.  It is a tribute to the coaching staff and the depth of the UK team that the Cats looked so sharp against such a good team.

Of course, the huge crowd at Rupp was in ecstasies.  Lots of people complain about the crowds at Rupp, thinking that they should always exhibit the sort of emotion that you'd expect if Marshall County and Tilghman were playing for the Regional Final.  And I can see that point.  But to me, the Rupp fans are really great at picking their spots -- they have a great instinct for those games and moments when the team really needs a spark.  Just before tip-off, Matt Jones reported that the mood at Rupp felt different than usual -- as it should for a big game.

So the Cats are now 11-0, with a 32-point win over Kansas (currently ranked 10th by Ken Pomeroy), a 12-point win over Texas (9th), and a 14-point win over North Carolina (15th).  That's extremely impressive.


  1. OK, as far as I know, AMC is not working on a TV show about Joe B. Hall's first six years as the head basketball coach at UK. But they should.

  2. The same peoples who fill Rupp are the same peoples who once filled Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) pews, and, by and large, there isn't a lot of yelling and screaming in those churches, either.

  3. When I was at UK the thing about the fans came to a head. At the time the way things were situated there was a student section that was in front of a fairly expensive paid section. The word was that the paid fans were constantly yelling at the students to sit down and the students kept yelling at the paid fans to get up and cheer instead of just sitting in their expensive seats.

    Of course this is the kind of thing that Pitinio addressed because that's the kind of guy he was at UK. He had them shift the student seats around to another area so the students were more clustered and wouldn't be interfering with paying customers. Both sides were happy and things moved on from there.

    Wonder if it is still that way or if someone else changed it?

    Anyhow it's amazing, in retrospect, how detail oriented Pitino was. He took on things that I think other coaches just didn't think or wouldn't think were there concern. For instance when I started at UK you had to camp for student tickets. It was a miserable experience and you could go through the whole thing and still end up with no tickets. Pitino had them change how tickets were distributed creating a lottery system. We would all sit in Memorial gym and they would call out numbers, etc. If you didn't get a ticket, well it wasn't a big deal you had just sat in the gym for a couple of hours, not camped the night in the rain and cold. I know many UK fans can't stand Pitino today, but I just remember all of those things and can't.

  4. By the way I've been thinking and thinking about who UNC is going to hire to replace Williams when he's forced to retire at the end of the year and I've decided it will be Brad Stevens.

  5. I remember one time being at a college basketball team's practices in October and they were working on how to arrange themselves and behave during player introductions and the national anthem.