Thursday, March 19, 2015

Kentucky 78 - 63 Arkansas (Nashville, Tenn.) (SEC Tournament) (No. 2,174)

I do not agree with those folks who think the conference tournaments -- at least in the major conferences -- are a waste of time.  To me, the SEC Tournament is a great opportunity to settle all of Kentucky's remaining business with the rest of the Conference before we go deal with the rest of the country.  Watching the Cats play three games in three days -- mostly before crowds who don't get to see them at Rupp, mostly against teams that I really don't like by this time of the year -- does a lot to help me understand what kind of team we have, and what kind of year it's been.

So I was excited to see the Cats in the SEC Final for the fifth time in Coach Calipari's six seasons at UK.  Of course, the 2012 Cats famously lost the SEC Final to Vandy, and won the National Title.  For that matter, the 1996 Cats lost the SEC Final to Mississippi State, and also won the National Title.  But this year's group was trying to protect their undefeated record, so I had a feeling they would take this game pretty seriously.

They also had another reason to take this game seriously -- there's no love lost between Our Wildcats and the Arkansas Razorbacks.  Arkansas is a tough, gutsy team that likes to talk and talk about how great it is, and how bad its opponents are, and all that sort of thing.  They are also not above throwing cheap shots here or there as circumstances warrant.  Nolan Richardson and Mike Anderson are, if anything, even more angry about the inherent injustice of the world than the typical UK fan, and when their teams are good, they play with a manic intensity you don't see very often.  And they really hate Kentucky.

I've seen many Kentucky teams taken off-guard by Arkansas's intensity, and I've seen a lot of those Kentucky teams lose.  Kentucky teams to be made up of guys who were high school All-Americans, and who have been enormously successful at almost everything they've ever tried.  This gives them a happy confidence that often serves the Cats very well -- but it can render them vulnerable to getting whacked upside the head by an angry team that's playing out of its mind.  (Go back and watch the films of Mike Anderson's UAB team knocking our top-seeded Cats from the 2004 Tournament, and you'll know what I mean.)  But this year's team is different.  I think part of it is because of all the close losses the Harrisons suffered last year, along with the criticism they took.  I think part of it is that Willie Cauley-Stein has the mentality of a former high school football star who doesn't mind getting hit.  I think part of it is that Devin Booker plays harder when he thinks people are cheering against him.  But for whatever reason, this team seems to channel its anger better than most UK teams.  They don't start playing out of control, or get into fights, or take wild shots.  There's a cold-blooded ruthlessness that you just don't see all that often.  And all the yapping, and hitting, and bragging, from the Arkansas players seems to bring out the best in UK.

But that's not all.  Arkansas's "40 Minutes of Hell" is not just about having more intensity than the other guy.  It's also the ideal way for shorter, quicker players to overcome their size disadvantage.  Arkansas is always doing stuff when the ball gets close to the floor -- they slap at it, they steal it, they roll it to each other, they scoop it up and head for the other goal.  Don't let the ball get too low against a Mike Anderson team -- bad things will normally happen if you do.  I've always loved this type of basketball.  As a short person, I can't really imagine being tall -- but I can imagine being fast.  And I always thought it looked so fun to zip up and down the floor the way Arkansas normally does.

Unfortunately for me, the Arkansas approach is ideally suited to challenging Kentucky.  Ever since I can remember, Kentucky has featured relatively tall, elegant guards -- much like the Harrison Twins.  And ever since I can remember, Kentucky has been vulnerable to low quick guards like Anthony Hickey who are always slapping at the ball, driving into the lane, and whipping passes all over the place.  This year, however, Coach Calipari did something that no UK coach in my lifetime has ever tried -- he gave a big role to a guard who is only 5 feet, 9 inches tall.  Tyler Ulis is, of course, an extraordinary talent who fully deserves his place at Kentucky.  But I can see how other coaches in other years would have gone for the more traditional, taller player.  And, indeed, there are times where teams try to take advantage of Ulis's height when the Cats are on defense.  For this reason, and others, I disagree with those commentators who said the Cats should start Ulis and have Andrew Harrison on the bench.

There are times, however, where Ulis is absolutely perfect, and Sunday was one of those times.  For once, UK had a guard on the floor who was actually better at playing Arkansas' system than anyone who played for the Razorbacks.  Ulis played 34 minutes against Arkansas, and he was magnificent.  He shredded the Arkansas press, and set up one easy basket after another with beautiful passes.  He scored 8 points to go along with his 6 assists, and dictated the tempo of the game throughout.  Arkansas had no answer for him, and he was the main reason this game was so easy for the Cats.

So now Kentucky has added an SEC Tournament title to its perfect regular season, and now it's on to the Big Dance.  I'm extremely nervous, but very excited.  Whatever happens, I will never forget this team or this year.


  1. Matt Jones on the radio yesterday--suddenly, I've become the guy who is always saying what Matt Jones said--that he's guessing Tyler Ulis will end up playing three years at UK and that he'll end up going down as one of the fanbase's all-time favorites. He was talking about how in control Ulis plays, and you take that, plus your point about his being UK's version of all the Anthony Hickeys that UK has had to play in the SEC over the last 40 years, plus his size, plus that we might have a little while to get to know him ... yeah, I thought what Matt Jones said was a pretty good prediction.

    I'll let you know what else Matt Jones says.