Monday, March 23, 2015

Kentucky 64 - 51 Cincinnati (Louisville) (NCAA Tourn.) (No. 2,176)

Why, exactly, does the University of Cincinnati field a basketball team?  Or, to be more precise, why does it field this particular type of basketball team?  That is, a team made up of guys who aren't actually that good at what most of us think of as basketball.  Consider the following facts:

Since 2002, no Cincinnati basketball team has made more than 50 percent of its two-point shots.  Seven times, UC has ranked lower than 200 in two-point shooting percentage.

Since 2005, no Cincinnati basketball team has made more than 34.1 percent of its three-point shots.  Nine times during this period, UC has ranked lower than 196 in three-point shooting percentage.

Since 2002, there have only been two Cincinnati teams that made at least 70 percent of its free throws.  In eight out of the last nine years, Cincinnati has placed 250th or worse in free throw shooting.

This is why, every time you see Cincinnati playing -- usually on ESPN2 against some team like South Florida -- you quickly change the channel.  Who wants to watch this type of basketball?  It hasn't brought them a lot of success -- their ancient rivals, Louisville and Memphis, have done much better in recent years.  Xavier, their cross-town rival, regularly beats them -- and almost always out-performs them in the Tournament.  Louisville is now in the ACC.  Xavier is in the Big East. But no one wanted UC, so they are stuck in something called the American Athletic Conference.

And don't even get me started on the various controversies surrounding the program.  Remember when Bob Huggins -- UC's greatest coach since Ed Juncker left in the 1960's -- was forced to resign?  Remember the brawl a few years ago with Xavier -- a brawl that has its own Wikipedia page?

So what is the point of a controversy-plagued program that doesn't usually go deep into the NCAA Tournament, can't beat Xavier on a regular basis, can't even play Louisville any more, and that features a bunch of kids who can't shoot?  As far as I can tell, the only point of the UC program is that every so often, it gets the chance to play Kentucky -- and the Bearcats want to use these chances to annoy Kentucky fans as much as possible.

In December 1983, Kentucky brought the number-2 team in the country to Cincinnati for their first game against the Bearcats since 1948.  There was no shot clock back then, so UC held the ball for almost the entire game.  Kentucky won by a final score of 24-11.  Kentucky then won the remaining games in that series, and has refused to play UC in the regular season ever since.

UC finally got to play Kentucky in the second round of the 2005 Tournament, and we were left to deal with the usual claims of all the terrible things the Bearcats were going to do to UK.  In the end, the Cats won 69-60, and that turned out to be Bob Huggins's last game in charge of UC.

Ten more years pass, and here they are again -- the same violent style, the same lack of basketball skill, the same determination to yell and fight and boast.

The Bearcats got every break imaginable in this game.  UK was ice-cold from the outside, going 4-15 from the outside.  (Devin Booker was 0-5 from behind the arc, and he has now made only 3 of his last 16 three-pointers).  The Cats also missed a bunch of shots from within about two feet of the goal.  The officials, like most officials these days, decided to call only about 60 percent of the fouls the Bearcats actually committed.  And the Bearcats' antics on the court -- which should have led to about four technical fouls -- were punished only with a double technical on a play where UC's Octavius Ellis went out of his way to bump Aaron Harrison.  (I supposed Aaron earned his technical for being in a place where Ellis could bump him.)

Thanks to all these blessings, UC trailed by only 35-32 with 15:40 left in the game, and Bearcat morale was high.  But UC always has the wrong idea about Kentucky.  I understand that the horse farms, and the cheerleaders, and the whole Lexington scene generally, might lead you to think that Kentucky is one of those fancy-pants schools like Duke or UNC that doesn't want to play "tough guy" basketball -- that they can be intimidated by the likes of Octavius Ellis and co.  In fact, this is not true.  Kentucky is not just the UNC of Kentucky -- it is also the North Carolina State of Kentucky.  The Wildcats exhibit both the pride of the most successful basketball program in history -- and the working-class values of every small town in the Commonwealth.  And they get in tough, brutal games all the time.  (Just ask Tennessee.  Or Arkansas.  Or Georgia.  Or LSU.)  You can't last long at Kentucky if you can't win games like this.

Different UK coaches have had different approaches to this type of challenge.  When Rick Pitino was at Kentucky, he preferred to soar over teams like UC -- bombing them with three's and turnovers until they were too far behind to keep up.  But Calipari doesn't have such good three-point shooters -- and that's not his style anyway.  He believes that you have to earn victories over teams like UC by going inside over and over and over -- by letting them know that you're even tougher than they are.  And so this Kentucky team usually tries to blast its way through the type of physical play UC was handing out.

Down the stretch, that's exactly what the Cats did.  Over 14 minutes in the second half, Kentucky outscored UC 27 to 11, taking their lead from 35-32 to 62-43.  I thought everyone played well, but the Cats' MVP was the smallest player on the floor -- Tyler Ulis, who refused to back off from UC's pressure, and who played 34 minutes with 9 points, 5 assists, 3 steals -- and no turnovers.

And so this amazing, wonderful, spectacular team became the first team in the history of NCAA Division 1 to post a record of 36-0.  They also won the last game they will ever play in the Beloved Commonwealth, and earned a spot in the Sweet 16 in Cleveland.  And they brought great joy to all the Kentuckians who crammed into the Yum! Center to cheer and cheer and cheer.

Afterward, the UC players said that Kentucky's 9 blocks and 7 steals didn't bother them -- they just didn't execute the way they should have.  And that's the story that they will tell themselves for years to come.  But meanwhile, we go on to the next round.  And if you think the Bearcats were tiresome, wait until you see what their old coach, Bob Huggins, has cooked up at West Virginia.

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