Saturday, February 21, 2015

Tennessee 48 - 66 Kentucky (No. 2,166)

This post is dedicated to the girl who was wearing her UK gear in the front row of the UT student section on Tuesday night.  REPRESENT!

This post is also dedicated to all the Kentuckians who keep rooting for the Cats even though they now live in Tennessee, and especially to the folks who were doing the Go Big Blue chant at the end of Tuesday night's game.  REPRESENT!

And finally, this post is dedicated to the folks in Vegas who made UK a 14-point favorite in Knoxville. They would have gotten my money, as I couldn't see UK running up such a big margin in this game.

Now, on with the post:

See, here's the thing about Batman and the Joker.  Batman has to fight all the criminals, no matter who they are.  If they come to Gotham City, Batman takes them on.  So Batman has to have skills and a game plan that can work against a wide range of criminals -- from the mob to the Riddler to Mr. Freeze.  The Joker, by contrast, can devote all his time and energy to figuring out how to beat Batman.

Here's another thing.  Batman is out on patrol every night, so he has to pace himself and avoid getting too high or too low at any given time.  By contrast, the Joker can save his energy for one big push against Batman.

And another thing.  The Joker cheats.

So when you put it all together, it's not really so surprising that the Joker catches Batman off guard, and sometimes even captures him.  What makes Batman a true hero isn't that he never makes mistakes, or never gets surprised, but that no matter what happens, he keeps fighting.

This brings us to UK's first visit to Knoxville in two years.  To me, UK's trip to Knoxville is the most important game of the regular season -- it's always the first game I look for when the new schedule comes out.  Some of this is because in Western Kentucky, Tennessee has much more of a presence than schools like U of L or Indiana.  Some of it is because Tennessee is my least favorite school in the SEC, and I really want UK to beat them.  But a lot of it has to do with the fact that playing UT in Knoxville is a huge test of character for any UK team.

Like the Joker, Tennessee really isn't that interested in normal measures of success.  Tennessee has never been to the Final Four, it hasn't won the SEC Tournament since 1979, and it usually either misses the NCAA Tournament or it goes out early.  But the UT fans don't really care -- their goal is to beat Kentucky, and that's what they expect their coach to deliver.  Tennessee built an enormous gym back in the 1980's, in large part so it could claim to have a bigger gym than Rupp Arena.  And then the only time the UT fans sell it out is when UK comes to town.

Now being a supervillain is not good for your character, and UT's obsession with Kentucky has, in my opinion, hurt its basketball program.  Great coaches like Nolan Richardson and Billy Donovan understand that if you concentrate on building a team that can get to the Final Four, you will win your fair share of games against Kentucky.  But it doesn't work the other way round.  The best team UT ever had -- the Ernie and Bernie squad that beat UK five straight times from 1975 to 1977 -- went 0-2 in the NCAA Tournament.  Don DeVoe took over one of the best programs in the SEC in the late 1970's -- and left behind a weak program eleven years later.  But UT fans loved him because he had such a good record against Kentucky.

After a long stretch of mediocrity, UT finally got a good coach again in Bruce Pearl, but he was busted for cheating.  While waiting for his three-year suspension to expire (no one at UT seemed to feel that cheating should prevent Pearl from being rehired as soon as possible), the Vols gave the job to little-known Cuonzo Martin.  The Vol fans never appreciated Martin; they thought his focus on low-scoring games and rugged defense was boring, and they wanted Pearl back.  But Martin did a great job -- in three years he went 32-20 in SEC play and he came within a eyelash of reaching the Elite Eight last season.  In fact, he did so well that even the Vols couldn't just fire him in order to bring in Pearl, so Pearl went to Auburn.  Then Martin -- no doubt aware that most of the Tennessee fan base had wanted him gone -- left for California.

Out of this typical UT-fed morass of passion, rage, and controversy, the Vols ended up with Donnie Tyndall, formerly of Morehead State and Southern Miss.  Under Tyndall, the Vols are currently ranked 103d on KenPom -- their lowest ranking in his database, which goes back to 2002.  But Tyndall is a good X's and O's guy, and he is a perfect fit for the UT fan base -- he looks like an angry Baptist preacher.  He was wearing the old Ray Mears orange jacket for the UK game, and from time to time the camera would zoom in on Tyndall, and you would see a face absolutely suffused with fury.  Tennessee fans like to see their heroes get angry, and I could see them supporting Tyndall for years to come.

Certainly, Tyndall seemed to appreciate the importance of this game to his fans.  Not only did he break out the orange jacket, he apparently let the Vols take the night off in their previous game -- a 73-55 pasting (in Knoxville) by LSU.  But they were ready Tuesday night when Dick Vitale, ESPN, over 25,000 people, and the number one team in the country rolled into UT's gym.

In the first half, the young Cats got the full Knoxville experience.  Karl-Anthony Towns, arguably UK's best player, lasted only about a minute before he got two fouls and was out until halftime.  Devin Booker appeared to have a breakaway layup until a UT player shoved him into the cheerleaders -- causing one cheerleader to leave the game and a near-fight to break out among the players.  UT packed its defense around the goal, and it soon became clear that the Cats would have to earn any foul that was called.  And then there was the usual array of miraculous running shots, bad goaltending calls, a bad out-of-bounds call, and other tactics that surprised no long-time UK fans, but which repeatedly provoked that angry shocked face that the Harrison Twins get when the officials do something with which they disagree.  With 4 minutes left in the first half, UT led 26-23, and the Big Orange fans were crying for blood.  As usual, the Joker had gotten the drop on Batman.

And here's where the character test comes in.  Most of the time, life as a UK basketball player is pretty nice.  You win lots of games, you have lots of fans, and life is good.  But how do you react when everything starts to go wrong?  When you can't trust the officials to make the right calls?  When you're stuck on the road against a hyper-active UT team, and the only way forward involves a huge amount of physical effort?

Some UK teams get nervous in this situation -- I think this was the reason Joe Hall lost so many games at UT.  Others -- like the team with John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins -- are over-confident, and fall so far behind that they can't come back in time.  Almost everyone tries to shoot a bunch of three-pointers -- but only Jodie Meeks has been able to make that work.  In this game, the Cats went 5-22 from three-point range, so that was not the answer.

The best answer -- the only true answer, in my opinion -- is that you have to match the manic intensity that Tennessee brings to this game.  Being better at basketball isn't enough -- you have to push back, crash the boards, contest everything, and show the Vols that you can play their game.  Some teams get it and some teams don't.  But every UK team that has won the National Championship has won in Knoxville.

In this game, Booker was the Cat who seemed to get it first.  Instead of being intimidated, he seemed to take being pushed into the cheerleaders as a personal affront.  After Tyler Ulis missed a three-pointer, Booker grabbed the rebound and scored, cutting UT's lead to 26-25.  With 1:57 left in the first half, he hit a three-pointer to put UK up 29-26.  And with 43 seconds left, he hit another three to give UK a 32-29 lead -- and then taunted the UT crowd.  At halftime, UK led 35-31, which was very good under the circumstances.

But you don't give up in your biggest game of the year, and so UT came out fighting in the second half.   Like many teams these days, the Vols don't really start their offense until after they've taken their first shot -- through much of the game, UT's best play was the offensive rebound.  And even with Towns back in the contest, UK's offense struggled to break down UT's zone.  With 9 minutes left in the game, UT hit on one of those full-court inbounds passes for an easy layup.  At this point, UK led 48-44, and the game seemed very much up for grabs.

Booker came down and was fouled -- he made both free throws to give UK a 50-44 lead.  Then Andrew Harrison (who was great all night) made the play of the game -- a steal and layup to put UK up eight.  And now, finally, UT's legs appeared to be worn out.  In the last nine minutes of the game, UT missed shot after shot, and they were no longer getting the offensive put-backs they needed.  UK had not only matched UT's intensity; they had worn down the Vols.  And now they put them away, attacking the basket over and over.  POW!  BAM!  BIFF!

26-0.  13-0 in the SEC.  Five games left.

So this team has now done something that no Kentucky team had ever done -- it has won its first 26 games of the year.  No other UK team has done this -- not the Fabulous Five of 1948, not the 1978 Champions, not the championship squads of 1996 or 2012.  It is an amazing, spectacular accomplishment, and it will stay with me no matter what else happens this year.

No comments:

Post a Comment