Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Kentucky 84 - 67 Arkansas (No. 2,169)

One of my favorite things about college basketball is the many micro-cultures that exist within the game.  For example, UVA's pokey, defense-first style combines the brutal defense preferred in the D.C. and Hampton Roads area with the slow-paced style developed by coaches in Wisconsin, where UVA Coach Tony Bennett started his career.  At the other end of the pace spectrum we find the folks in the Southwest, who are still channeling the spirit of Phi Slamma Jamma and those great Houston teams of the 1980's.  The conference that plays the fastest basketball this year is the Southland Conference, home to schools like Northwestern State and Stephen F. Austin.  The two fastest teams in the SEC -- and two of the fastest teams in the country -- are LSU and Arkansas.  So we knew we were in for some racehorse basketball when the Razorbacks came to Rupp Arena.

Of course, it was Nolan Richardson (of Texas Western) who first brought the "40 minutes of Hell" to Arkansas back in the late 1980's.  Starting in the 1992 season, Arkansas was part of the SEC, and for several years Richardson and UK's Rick Pitino presided over the best and most entertaining rivalry in college basketball.  But Pitino left UK, and Arkansas's basketball program was devastated by the conflict between Richardson and Arkansas Athletic Director Frank Broyles -- two proud geniuses who turned on each other.  Bereft of their Moses, the Razorbacks wandered in the wilderness for many years -- while Memphis stocked up on the players who had made Arkansas such a power in the early 1990's.

But Nolan Richardson had left behind his own Joshua -- Mike Anderson, who continued preaching the Old-Time Religion.  It was always obvious that Anderson's return to Arkansas could cause real headaches for the Big Blue.  Anderson's UAB team knocked out Tubby Smith's top-seeded Kentucky Wildcats in the second round of the 2004 Tournament.  His Missouri team knocked out Coach Calipari's last Memphis team in the Sweet 16 back in 2009.  Meanwhile, from 2001 to 2010, the Cats beat Arkansas 10 times in a row.

The folks in Fayetteville finally got the message, and hired Mike Anderson after the 2011 season.  His first game against Kentucky was an 86-63 blowout in Rupp for the 2012 National Champions.  But after that Anderson beat the Cats three times in a row:  73-60 in Fayetteville near the end of the 2013 season, 87-85 in overtime in Fayetteville last January, and 71-67 (again in overtime) last February at Rupp.  That last game almost sank the Cats, and it certainly played a big role in the NCAA's decision to give UK an eight seed in the Tournament.

As we all know, UK has done pretty well since that game -- but the Razorbacks have continued to improve as well.  Coming into Saturday's game, Arkansas was 23-5 overall and 12-3 in the SEC -- their best marks in either category since Nolan Richardson's last great team in 1995.  Nor were the Razorbacks likely to be intimidated by the Big Blue -- on Nolan Richardson's first trip to Rupp Arena, the Razorbacks whipped the 1992 Unforgettables 105-88, and neither Richardson nor Anderson have been afraid of UK ever since.  Under their leadership, Arkansas has always played a bold, attacking style that never admits weakness or fear.

But on this day, the Razorbacks lacked the three-point shooting that his historically been such a big part of the Richardson/Anderson style.  Arkansas missed all nine of its three-point shots in the first half, and UK took advantage of those big rebounds to attack the Razorbacks.  This Kentucky team, more than almost any that I can remember, likes to attack the basket -- and the Cats took advantage over their size and strength to pound the ball inside against the smaller Razorbacks.  UK also refused to back off in the face of Arkansas' speed -- they simply met every Arkansas attack with a speedy counter-attack of their own.

The result was a devastating performance by the Cats.  At halftime, UK led 42-26 -- and when Arkansas continued pressing the pace in the second half, the Cats really poured it on.  Through the first 12 minutes of the second half, UK outscored Arkansas 36-21, and UK had a thirty-one point lead:  78-47.  The Cats took their foot off the gas after that, and the never-say-die Razorbacks finished the game on a 20-6 run.  But through the first 32 minutes of the game, UK played about as well as possible.

29-0.  16-0 in the SEC.  Two games left.

For the second game in a row, Trey Lyles was the UK MVP -- 8-10 from the field, 2-2 from the line, 18 points and 4 rebounds in 31 minutes.  One of my favorite memories of this season will be watching Lyles hit that 15-foot jumper along the baseline that Ernie Grunfeld used to make.  I love that shot, and I can't remember the last player -- at UK or anywhere else -- before Lyles who was so willing and able to make it.  Lyles and Karl-Anthony Towns (who went 4-5 from the field after missing most of the first half with foul trouble) also showed a nice array of old-fashioned post moves.  Throughout this season, I've had a sense that the Cats are going back in time -- that as the year goes on, Calipari and his staff are teaching them all sorts of old-school techniques:  hook shots, baseline jumpers, interior passing (Willie Cauley-Stein had an assist to Devin Booker that took my breath away), and traditional post play.  It's been a joy to watch, and Saturday the Cats put on a real show against a very worthy opponent.

1 comment:

  1. And these reports have been up to the team's performance.