Saturday, March 28, 2015

Kentucky 78 - 39 W. Virginia (Cleveland) (NCAA Tourn.) (No. 2,177)

It has become a trope among sportswriters to say that Kentucky fans will "go nuts," or "be devastated," or "be furious" if Kentucky doesn't win it all -- that our expectations are so high that nothing can satisfy us, that we are unrealistic and overly demanding.  This is an old, old stereotype of the Kentucky fan base -- it goes back at least to the 1970's, when we were supposedly being too hard on Joe B. Hall.  And like all stereotypes, it contains a grain of truth -- Kentucky fans are extremely demanding, and Kentucky fans are often heartbroken when their team loses.  Certainly after winning the first 37 games of the year, I think it's too late to pretend that we'll all be fine and dandy if the Cats lose now.

But the stereotype is misleading, because it implies that the Kentucky fan base is unfair to the players and coaches who represent the team.  In fact, the collective wisdom of the fan base is amazingly accurate.  For years, Kentucky fans worried that Joe Hall wasn't as good a coach as, say, Denny Crum or Bobby Knight or Dean Smith.  As much as I like Hall now -- and I think he should be in the Hall of Fame -- I don't think anyone would now argue that he's at the same level as Crum, Knight, or Smith, each of whom won multiple national championships.  Similarly, UK fans were bitterly criticized by the press for their criticism of Tubby Smith.  Looking at what UK has done under John Calipari, can anyone now say it was unrealistic for Kentucky fans to think that we could do better than Tubby Smith?

The truth is that Kentucky fans, both individually and collectively, spend an enormous time thinking about college basketball in general, and their team in particular.  We know a LOT about college basketball, and especially about our team.  If you sit with us, for any length of time, you will notice that almost all of us are coaching as the game goes along -- go here, take that shot, don't you see that guy, that's your man -- and most of our lives are spent agonizing over the fact that it's extremely difficult to get college-age guys to do what they're supposed to do.

And so, yes, we do get angry when guys take dumb shots, or don't get back on defense, or miss the open man, or dribble into traffic, or do any of the hundreds of other bad basketball plays that are inevitable at this level.  We also get angry when our coach -- who is supposed to be recruiting the best players in the country for UK -- leads us into battle with players who simply aren't good enough to compete for a national title.  And much of that anger is justified.

But other times. we get a team that we love because we can tell that these guys really are doing their best.  Kentucky fans weren't bitter when the Cats lost to the Fab Five in 1993 -- we lost to a great team on a night where a lot of things went wrong with us.  Kentucky fans aren't mad at Dan Issel or Chuck Hayes because they never went to the Final Four -- those guys did their best and were let down by forces beyond their control.  Kentucky fans love John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins despite their loss in the 2010 Elite Eight -- we know and appreciate all they did for the program.

I say all of the above to make two points.  First, whatever happens the rest of the way, I think most Kentucky fans will remember this team fondly.  In all my years of watching Kentucky, I don't think I have ever seen a smarter, more disciplined, more determined team than this one.  Second, in the future, when you want to know what Kentucky fans are looking for, pull out the tape of this game against West Virginia.

I admit to being nervous about playing West Virginia -- I don't like rivalry games in the Tournament, I don't like going up against teams coached by Bob Huggins, I don't like physical games where the other teams are trying to push our guys around.  In short, I feared that WVU would represent an even more tiresome version of the sort of slugfest basketball we've already seen from schools like Florida, Georgia, and Cincinnati.  Certainly the WVU players were ready for the game -- there were comments about how Kentucky doesn't play hard (!), and how they weren't ready for the Mountaineer press.

Now there are certain things that we fans want the Cats to do in this type of situation, and UK did them all.  First, we don't want them to get into a back-and-forth with the other team in the press.  All week, our guys were extremely quiet.  Second, we don't want the Cats to be intimidated by the threats from the other team.  From the tip-off, our guys were the more aggressive team.  Third, we don't want a lot of turnovers.  UK made only 10 turnovers the whole game.  Fourth, we want a nice early lead so that we aren't worried.  UK led 18-2 early in the game.  And finally, we want the Cats to not ease up -- to keep the pressure on the other team all the way.  UK outscored WVU in all four quarters of the game, and just kept building its lead:

1st Quarter:  UK 22, WVU 7
2d Quarter:  UK 22, WVU 11 (UK led 44-18 at the half)
3d Quarter:  UK 14, WVU 8 (UK led 58-26 with 10 minutes to go)
4th Quarter:  UK 20, WVU 13 (UK won 78-39)

It was the biggest margin of victory ever in the NCAA Tournament over a team seeded 5 or better.  It was (I believe) the only time in the history of the Sweet 16 where one team has doubled the score of its opponent.  UK was so dominant that the Cats scored more points in the first half than WVU scored in the whole game.  In short, it was an evening to treasure.

Except for Karl-Anthony Towns (who picked up 4 fouls in only 13 minutes and just didn't get to play very much), the Cats played an almost perfect game.  They were annoyed by WVU's yapping, they were not afraid of WVU's press, and they weren't too worried about a Mountaineer team that can't shoot the ball very well.  I'm not sure that I have ever seen a prouder squad at UK than this one, they were determined to make a statement, and they did.

Of course, as soon as the game was over, we could all start worrying about the next one.  Kentucky has had an odd draw in this tournament -- it's felt like they were working through a district tournament, where they have to keep playing local foes and old rivals.  Next up is Notre Dame -- a team that will always inspire strong emotions in Kentucky fans who remember the Digger Phelps era.  The Irish will represent a very different challenge -- they are a great offensive team that makes 39.2 percent of its three-point shots and 58.4 percent of its two-point shots.  We have not played a team like this all season, with the possible exception of North Carolina.  It will be a long day for the Kentucky fan base, as we wait to see whether we get to raise another banner in Rupp.  But whatever happens, I am so proud of our team, and I wish them all the best.

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