Saturday, March 14, 2015

Kentucky 64 - 49 Florida (Nashville, Tenn.) (SEC Tournament) (No. 2,172)

Our church is on a program whereby everyone is supposed to read the Bible in a year -- the order of the reading is based upon the time covered by each book.  So far we have read Genesis, Job, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and the first 28 chapters of Deuteronomy.  All of this reading has left me in an Old-Testament mood, and yesterday's game brought a number of Old Testament quotes to mind:

"Iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend."  Prov. 27:17.

Since John Calipari came to UK, this was the fourth time that the Cats and Florida have met in the SEC Tournament.  Of course, Kentucky and Florida also play twice a year in the regular season, so they have met a total of 16 times during Calipari's six seasons.  It's very rare to have two Hall of Fame Coaches, both at the height of their careers, both in the SEC at the same time -- the only other comparable rivalry I can recall was the rivalry between Rick Pitino and Nolan Richardson in the 1990's.  But Kentucky and Arkansas were in opposite divisions, and only played once in each regular season,

The rivalry between John Calipari's Kentucky teams and Billy Donovan's Florida teams have  underscored for me the difference between a Hall of Fame coach and a really good coach.  Hall of Fame coaches don't suffer a lot of upsets, and their teams learn from their mistakes.  Look at the history of these two teams since Calipari came to Lexington:

2010:  Calipari caught Donovan by surprise, beating him 89-77 at Florida and 74-66 at UK thanks to a high-powered team led by John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins.

2011:  Donovan quickly recovered.  His 2011 team beat the Cats 70-68 at Gainesville.  They also won the SEC with a record of 13-3.  They finished 29-8 and made the Elite Eight.  But Calipari responded as well -- his Cats beat Florida 76-68 in the re-match at Lexington, beat the Gators 70-54 in the SEC Final, and went to the Final Four.

2012:  Both teams re-loaded for 2012.  Calipari had Anthony Davis and one of the best teams in college basketball history.  The Cats beat Florida three times that year:  78-58 in Lexington, 74-59 in Gainesville, and 74-71 in the SEC Semi-Finals.  UK went on to win the National Championship.  But as that last score shows, Florida learned from their games with UK.  The Gators went 26-11 and almost reached the Final Four -- losing by only four points to Louisville in the Elite Eight.

2013:  UK's team broke up, while Florida's continued.  The Gators went 29-8 overall, won the SEC with a record of 14-4, and went to the Elite Eight for the third year in a row.  They also crushed UK 69-52 in Gainesville.  The Cats rallied to avoid a sweep, winning the last game of the regular season against Florida;  61-57.

2014:  Calipari brought in another talented group of freshmen, but now Donovan had a talented group of seniors.  Florida had won of its best teams in history:  36-3 over all, 18-0 in the SEC, SEC Tournament Champions, a trip to the Final Four.  The Gators beat UK three times last year:  69-59 in Lexington, 84-65 (ouch!) in Gainesville, and 61-60 in the SEC Tournament Final.  But just as Florida's close loss to UK in 2012 had presaged great things for the Gators, the young Cats' great effort in the SEC Final sparked their run to the NCAA Tournament Final.

2015:  Now it was 2013 in reversed -- Donovan was trying to rebuild, while Calipari was reloading.  The Gators stumbled to a 16-17 record that included three losses to UK:  68-61 in Gainesville, 67-50 in Lexington, and 64-47 yesterday in the SEC Quarters.  (This was the first time I can remember UK playing consecutive games against the same opponent.)

It all looks really easy on paper, but it wasn't that easy in real life.  Florida was better than its record indicated -- K-Pom thinks they're the 45th-best team in the country, and they had the 12th-best defense.  Plus after spending so much time with Kentucky, the Gators had learned almost all of the Wildcats' tricks.  With 10 minutes to go, the Cats led by only 48-42, and the huge Kentucky crowd at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville was nervous.  But Kentucky has Karl-Anthony Towns, Florida does not, and in the end no amount of strategy or effort was sufficient to get the Gators over that hump.  In 27 minutes, Towns had 13 points and 12 rebounds, and he helped UK blow the game open down the stretch.  This was the third straight time he has been UK's MVP, and his game seems better almost every time I see him.

"Thou shalt not see thy brother's ass or his ox fall down by the way, and hide thyself from them:  thou shalt surely help him to lift them up again."  Deut. 22:4.

The most obvious application of this verse would be to the Harrison Twins, who were magnificent yesterday.  Andrew had 9 points and controlled the game throughout, while Aaron chipped in 13 points on 4-8 shooting from the field and 4-4 from the line.  They also gave us some good Harrison faces in response to bad calls from the officials.  But of course most Christians believe that all men are brothers, and to me the greatest gift of the Harrisons is their ability to be, literally, as close as brothers without creating a Harrison-first dynamic that undermines team play.  They have been criticized relentlessly over the last two years, and to this day you can find commentators who believe the Cats are better off with Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker in the line-up.  But the Harrisons haven't become selfish, or tried to show up their younger teammates.  They are the ultimate teammates, as far as I can tell, and their attitude feeds through the whole team.

In these reports, we have generally taken for granted that the Wildcats play a beautiful, selfless style of basketball -- with everyone supporting each other on defense, and every game featuring a few jaw-dropping passes.  But it is worth putting down for the record that this is one of the nicest and most selfless group of players I have ever seen in college basketball -- or any sport, for that matter.  They seem to really like each other, they always play as a team, and they are constantly talking to each other.  (There was a great sequence yesterday after a misunderstanding between Ulis and Trey Lyles led to an easy Florida layup.  The Cats quickly came back and one of the Harrisons drew a foul, and as he went to take the free throws, you could see Ulis and Lyles talking to each other about what went wrong and how it could be fixed.  I don't know what they said, but that mistake was not repeated.)

"Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass."  1 Sam. 15: 3.

Kentucky had won 31 games in a row before yesterday, and many of those victories came by overwhelming margins.  But this wasn't nearly enough for the Kentucky fans who poured into Nashville.  I have never seen, anywhere, a group of fans as relentless as those who follow Kentucky's basketball team.  Adolph Rupp taught them to love and expect blowout wins, and they literally never tire of them.  They want the Cats to make every shot, they complain about every bad call, and they certainly want to win every game.

There was a great moment yesterday late in the game where Ulis hit a three-pointer late in the game to extend UK's lead from 12 to 15.  The game itself was out of reach at that point, and there was no question that UK would be moving on to the next round.  But when that shot went through the net, you could see the banks of Kentucky fans behind the goal simply erupt with joy.  In fact, the TV broadcast focused in on the reaction of several fans, and you would have thought that Kentucky had just clinched a title, not added three more points to an already-safe lead.  I'm not criticizing this attitude -- I did the same thing myself, all alone in my rec room.  You could watch every game on Championship Week, and few teams' fans will show as much joy over a Conference Title as Kentucky's fans showed for that one play.

Of course, this attitude makes it harder for Kentucky to attract bandwagon fans.  We aren't looking for summer soldiers or sunshine patriots.  For most of us, the goal is perfection -- and we are very lucky this year to have a coach and a team that cares even more than we do.

"The mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands."  Isa. 55:12.

Yesterday I went out early to get my lunch from Arby's, and I ran into two elderly Kentucky fans who were doing the same.  We were all wearing our gear, so we recognized each other at once.  One of them was from Lexington, the other was from Erlanger, and we all shared good wishes to each other for the rest of the season.  It was good to feel that connection with the rest of the Kentucky fan base, and it made me even happier to see the huge throngs of blue-wearing fans packed into the Bridgestone Arena.  I sometimes feel like Nashville is the biggest city in Western Kentucky, and I could just imagine all those folks driving down I-24 and I-65 for the SEC Tournament -- from Calvert City and Central City, Morganfield and Morgantown, Hopkinsville and Hopkins County, Hickman and Hickman County.  For most of these folks, getting to the SEC Tournament is a lot easier than going to Rupp, and this year, of course, they had the chance to be a part of an undefeated season.  So they showed up in great force, and they cheered and cheered and cheered.

It is very common, among intellectuals of my class, to find people who complain that Heaven sounds boring -- "who wants to be in church for the rest of your life?"  But Heaven isn't about sitting around and behaving.  Like Kentucky fans, our ability to affect the world's outcome is quite limited -- all the big actions are in God's hands.  All we can do is cheer.  And as the Kentucky fans showed yesterday, cheering can be wonderful.  Someday we are all going to cheer.  Someday even the trees of the field will clap their hands.  Someday we will feel a joy even greater than that provoked by a Willie Cauley-Stein dunk or a Devin Booker three-pointer.  And that joy won't fade, won't curdle into frustration, won't be forgotten.  Instead, it will go on and on and on.  In the meantime, here on earth, we can keep practicing our cheers.


  1. Again ... yes. A thousand times, yes. I can't wait to read the next one.

    By the way, I was thrilled to learn that my daughter's first-grade class watched this game during public school on Friday. The whole class made posters.