Saturday, January 31, 2015

Missouri 53 - 69 Kentucky (No. 2,160)

This post is dedicated to the one guy in the Missouri student section who was wearing a UK tee-shirt, while everyone else was in gold and black.  REPRESENT!

I'm also dedicating this post to the folks in Western Kentucky who packed the CFSB Center to watch Murray State play Eastern Kentucky on Thursday night -- even though the game was (1) on ESPN-U, and (2) it started at the same time as the UK/Missouri game.  Those people saw a great game -- the Racers were down 70-65 with 1:46 left but won 85-78 in overtime.  The Racers are now 8-0 in the OVC, and they have won 16 games in a row.  REPRESENT!

I'm also dedicating this post to Hilltop 75, a poster on the HilltopperHaven message board.  After WKU's 9-game winning streak ended in a 69-56 loss at Louisiana Tech on Thursday night, a Hilltopper fan named "Topcast" started a thread called "I hate La Tech."  I don't blame Topcast, given that La Tech managed to press WKU throughout the game -- forcing 16 turnovers -- but was whistled for only 9 fouls.  Most folks responding to the thread got into an argument over the relative hate-ability of La Tech and MTSU.  But Hilltop 75 had the right response:  "i hated latech since the 1973 Comellia bowl in 1973 my junior year at WKU."  REPRESENT!

No place on earth has better sports fans than the western portion of Kentucky.  Now, on with the post!

On Saturday, February 19, 1966, the top-ranked Kentucky Wildcats showed up at the New Gymnasium in Starkville, Miss. for a game with Mississippi State.  The Cats had lost there in three of their four previous appearances, but on this day they pulled out a hard-fought 73-69 victory, thanks to 21 points from Pat Riley.  I missed this game, because I was a few weeks away from being born.  But the 5000 or so folks who did see it were the last people to see UK take the floor with a record of 20-0.  In almost 50 seasons since then, the Cats have done some amazing things.  They have won four national titles.  They beat Magic Johnson in an NCAA Tournament game.  They came back from 34 points down to beat LSU on the road.  They came from 18 points down to knock Duke out of the 1998 NCAA Tournament.  They beat Louisville in the 2012 Tournament, and then beat them again in the 2014 Tournament.  They have won well over 1,000 games, in almost every state of the Union.  But until Thursday night, in Columbia, Mo., they had never started a season 20-0.

I know that college basketball teams are remembered for what they do in the NCAA Tournament.  I remember when UK started 19-1 in 2009-10, and didn't reach the Final Four.  I remember when UK won 26 games in a row during the 2002-03 season, and didn't reach the Final Four.  I remember when UK eliminated an undefeated Indiana team in the 1975 Tournament, and an undefeated Wichita State team in the 2014 Tournament.  I get it, and I promise that I will be heartbroken if this team doesn't get the National Title that I think they deserve.

But let's take some time to appreciate something that most of us have never seen, and that we may never see again.  Ever since I started rooting for Kentucky, 40 years ago, I have dreamed of watching the Cats go through a season without losing a single game.  Every time, I have been disappointed when the Cats took that first loss.  This UK team has now won more games to start the season than any other I've seen, and I will always remember them fondly for that.

We won't have too many other fond memories of this game, which was one of those games where the officials seemed to worry that everything was getting out of hand, and so they started calling fouls all over the place.  Together, the teams were whistled for 54 fouls, and five players (three for Mizzou and two for UK) fouled out.  You get games like this in conference play, and this was that type of game.

(However, I should note that so far this year, the officiating in the SEC has been pretty good.  For years, the SEC has featured a strong bias toward the home team.  Look at these stats from the last three seasons:

2012:  Home teams won 69.8 percent of SEC games (2d highest percentage of any conference)
2013:  Home teams won 69.8 percent of SEC games (4th)
2014:  Home teams won 69.8 percent of SEC games (2d)

But so far this year, home teams have won only 55.1 percent of SEC games -- the 24th highest percentage of any conference.  Meanwhile, 30.6 percent of SEC games have been decided by less than 4 points or have gone to overtime -- the 3d highest percentage of any conference.

These are very favorable developments, as they mean that the SEC standings are more likely to reflect the actual quality of teams on the floor, and are less likely to be distorted by some sort of misguided populism designed to give everyone a chance to pick up wins at home.)

Anyway, I didn't feel like the officiating in this game was biased one way or the other -- I just had the impression that the officials wanted to keep everything under control, especially after a confrontation between Marcus Lee and a Mizzou player early in the second half.

To their credit, Mizzou played extremely hard throughout the game, and I thought they had made significant progress at running their motion offense since we last saw them in Rupp Arena a few weeks ago.  They also did a number on Devin Booker, holding him to 9 points and forcing him into 4 turnovers in his trip to his dad's alma mater.  They also shut down Willie Cauley-Stein, who had 2 points in 23 minutes.

(And here, I have to interject a rare complaint about Tom Leach, one of my favorite play-by-play announcers ever.  Leach was doing his usual excellent job when early in the first half, WCS went to the line for two free throws.  At this point, Leach commented that the Cats were feeling better about WCS at the line, as he had made 12 of his last 14 free throws.  This was an obvious jinx -- as Leach himself quickly realized, saying something like "Now we'll see if I've jinxed him."  Sure enough, WCS missed all four of the free throws he took in this game.  Here's my request to Tom Leach:  don't say something that's a jinx, especially if you know it's a jinx.)

Soon after Tom Leach's comments on WCS, Mizzou took a 17-16 lead with 7:25 left in the first half.  But to their credit, the Cats responded with their usual brand of relentless effort.  I think Coach Calipari is convinced that his biggest challenge on offense is to make sure that the Cats are attacking the basket, and are not relying so much on their outside shooting.  In this game, UK took only seven three-pointers, and shot 37 free throws, which gives you a sense of how they kept attacking the basket.

Psychologically, attacking the basket is much more difficult than most of us realize.  The other night, Duke led Notre Dame 65-55 with 10:58 to go, but the Blue Devils scored only eight points the rest of the way -- and lost 77-73.  A big part of the trouble for Duke was that their players kept settling for jump shots instead of going to the hoop.  It's very understandable -- if you get close to the basket, there's a good chance that large and strong people will hit you, slap you, or do other painful things to you.  Why not take a little jump shot and avoid all that difficulty?

This temptation has to be especially strong when you have guys who don't shoot that great around the basket.  In seven SEC games, UK has made only 42.4 percent of its two-point shots -- putting UK 10th in the league in that category.  Still Calipari has them going inside over and over.  It's not always pretty, but it's probably necessary.

Anyway, the Harrison Twins did a good job of showing the rest of the team how to play inside.  On a night when beauty was rare, and fouls were common, the Harrisons did exactly what they should -- shooting only four three-pointers, and getting to the line for 15 free throws.  Aaron Harrison finished with 11 points, while Andrew chipped in 15, as  the Harrisons led the team in scoring.  No one (outside their immediate families) like Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker more than I do, but I think the Harrisons are the most important players on this team.

Led by the Harrisons, UK led 34-25 at the half, and built a 67-47 lead with less than 2 minutes before taking its foot off the gas.

20-0.  7-0 in conference.  11 games left.

On Saturday, a sell-out crowd at Rupp (and a bunch of us watching on TV) will get to see a 20-0 UK team for the first time since 1966.  I'm looking forward to it.


  1. i watched that wku-latech game, and wku got totally robbed in one key first-half run when they were about to take the lead.

  2. you're totally right about this uk team, though. it is just a joy to watch.

  3. It occurred to me about three quarters of the way through the Alabama game last night that I don't remember seeing Karl-Anthony Towns do anything wrong yet. I mean, I'm sure I've seen him do things wrong--I've watched almost every second of this season, and I'm sure there would've been a lot more commotion if Karl-Anthony Towns hadn't yet missed a shot, made a turnover or committed a foul as a college-basketball player. But when I think about Karl-Anthony Towns, I have zero impressions of him other than just doing at least successful if not spectacular things.