Sunday, April 5, 2015

Kentucky 64 - 71 Wisconsin (Indianapolis, Ind.) (NCAA Tourn.)

Once, a long time ago, I was living with my wife in a little apartment in Arlington, Virginia.  We didn't have any kids then -- it was just the two of us.  We were young and in love, ready to start a whole new life in a brand new city.  But a big slice of my heart was still in Kentucky, where Rick Pitino had the UK Wildcats playing the most beautiful basketball I had ever seen.  The Cats made almost 40 percent of their three-point shots that year.  They made 53.6 percent of their two point shots.  They harassed their opponents into making over 18 turnovers per game.  The results were awesome to behold.  The Cats rolled through the regular season with a record of 23-3.  Then things really got fun.  Look at these tournament scores:

SEC Tournament
3/12/93:  Kentucky 101, Tennessee 40
3/13/93:  Kentucky 92, Arkansas 81
3/14/93:  Kentucky 82, LSU 65

NCAA Southeast Regional
3/19/93:  Kentucky 96, Rider 52
3/21/93:  Kentucky 83, Utah 62
3/25/93:  Kentucky 103, Wake Forest 69
3/27/93:  Kentucky 106, Florida State 81

And just like that, the Cats were back in the Final Four for the first time in nine years.

Everything seemed to be coming together.  Around this time, I learned that we were going to have a baby.  We were looking for a new house.  I was settling in at work.  And now, the Kentucky Wildcats -- the great love of my childhood -- had come through with the type of magical season I had always wanted to see.  No more sitting through those dull, dreary defeats that were so common in the 1980's.  No more suffering because of the big scandal that almost destroyed the program in 1989.  Kentucky was hip, it was cool, it was glorious.

There was no Internet back then, but you could see almost all the games on cable, and I read every sports magazine and newspaper story I could get my hands on.  I listened to sports radio as often as I could, and I spent my free time talking basketball with my sports-minded friends.  Never before -- and never again -- was my life so consumed by the game.

And it was all so perfect.  We would beat Michigan in the semi-finals, we would beat North Carolina in the finals -- take that, Dean! -- and Kentucky would be back on top.  Then this holdover from my childhood would be resolved, and I could get on with my life -- the grown-up stuff of being a dad and having a job.

But of course it didn't happen like that.  UK went 7-21 from the three point line.  Dale Brown got hurt.  Jamal Mashburn fouled out in overtime.  The Fab Five put together the best single game they ever played.  And we lost 81-78 in overtime.  Michigan then blew the title game, and North Carolina -- the team I hated beyond all other teams -- won the 1993 National Championship.  It wasn't my year at all.  It was Dean Smith's year.

It was possibly the biggest disappointment I've ever had as a fan.  That was the only time I really and truly thought UK had the best team in the country -- but didn't see the Cats take the title.

Until tonight.

There are many people who hate Kentucky's basketball team, and there are many people who hate John Calipari, and tonight they are all celebrating.  They will gleefully point out the mistakes Kentucky made down the stretch, and they will be ecstatic that a bunch of Wisconsin kids who play the game "the right way" took down Big Bad Calipari and his team of One and Dones.

I will not read those stories, and I suggest you don't either.  For one thing, those stories don't do justice to an extraordinary Wisconsin team -- one of the best teams UK has ever played in the NCAA Tournament.  Over the last two years, this Wisconsin team has posted a record of 66-11.  They have Frank Kaminsky, who may be the best player in the country.  They have Sam Dekker, who is certainly one of the most dangerous offensive threats I can remember.  Tonight, with all the money on the line, they made 51.6 percent of their two-point shots, 41.2 percent of their three-point shots, and 81.8 percent of their free throws.  They also out-rebounded Kentucky 34-22, which was a huge problem for the Cats all night.

Even with that, Kentucky had a great chance to win.  For most of the game, it looked like a typical Kentucky classic.  UK fell behind 23-14 in the first half, but tied the score 36-all by halftime.  Then the Cats fell behind 52-44 early in the second half, but then went on a 16-4 run to take a 60-56 lead.  And with 6:09 left, they had a four-point lead, and the ball, and everyone who roots for Kentucky was yelling at them to put the game away.  Wisconsin looked tired, Karl-Anthony Towns (who went 7-11 for 16 points and 9 rebounds) looked unstoppable, and this was the time to bury the Badgers.

But at this point, Kentucky's season was ruined by a series of disastrous possessions:

1.  With 6:09 left in the game, UK held the ball for 32 seconds before Andrew Harrison missed a running jump shot.  Still 60-56.

2.  With 5:16 left in the game, UK held the ball for 34 seconds before Aaron Harrison missed a jump shot.  Still 60-56.

3.  After Wisconsin scored to make the score 60-58, with 4:21 left in the game, UK held the ball for 26 seconds, only to have Andrew Harrison's shot blocked by Kaminsky.  Towns grabbed the rebound, and UK waited another 33 seconds before Lyles missed a jump shot.  3:17 left.

4.  After Wisconsin scored to make it 60-all, UK waited 29 seconds before Andrew Harrison missed a jump shot.  2:04 left.

5.  Dekker made a three-pointer to put Wisconsin up 63-60 with 1:43 left.  This time UK waited only 18 seconds before Trey Lyles committed an offensive foul.

And that was pretty much it.  The Cats would finally get an old-fashioned three-point play from Aaron Harrison to cut Wisconsin's lead to 64-63 with 49 seconds left, but the Badgers ran off 24 seconds before Kaminsky drove to the basket.  He was fouled, and his free throws made it 66-63 with 25 seconds to go.  UK finally got the ball to Towns, who was fouled.  He made the first, missed the second, and the Badgers put the game away at the line.

Every Kentucky fan who saw this game will spend the rest of his or her life trying to understand what UK was doing with all those possessions down the stretch.  Why were they holding the ball so long?  Were they tired?  Why did they end up with so many jump shots, instead of going inside to Towns?

I don't know, but I will say this.  I have watched Kentucky and the Harrisons for two years.  I have seen them win many, many close games.  Time after time, I have seen them slow the game down at the end of the game -- counting on their team's height and skill to grind out the type of late-game possessions you need to win close games.  They've done it over and over, and almost always with success.  Tonight, they tried to do it again, and it didn't work.  But I thought they were going to score on every one of those possessions, and I'm sure they did, too.  Sometimes it's just not your story.  Sometimes, it's the other guy's story.  And tonight belonged to Bo Ryan, and Frank Kaminsky, and Sam Dekker, and a great team of guys who waited a full year to get their revenge on Kentucky, and who came through in the clutch.

Of course, now everyone in Wisconsin thinks that this is their year -- that they will get Bo Ryan the championship he deserves, and show the rest of the nation how basketball is Supposed to Be Played.  But my guess is that this is Duke's year.  The Blue Devils handled Wisconsin pretty easily at the beginning of the season, and I don't think the Badgers will be in good shape to take on Duke after tonight's slugfest.

But, to be honest, I probably won't see too much of the Duke/Wisconsin game.  It's been a long and stressful season, and the last thing I want now is to watch the Dukies celebrate.

There are going to be a lot of hard feelings in Kentucky over this game, and I expect a lot of people will say a lot of intemperate things.  So I want to make a few points.  First, I don't think Kentucky was out-coached.  Wisconsin presented huge problems for UK -- we didn't really have anyone who could guard Kaminsky or Dekker with consistency, and Wisconsin's height gave us a lot of trouble at both ends of the court.  Wisconsin's offense was one of the best I've ever seen, at least for tonight, and it meant that UK's depth was largely a non-factor.  Devin Booker, Dakari Johnson, and Marcus Lee all looked over-matched on the defensive end, which meant that Tyler Ulis was the only guy from the second platoon who could give consistent minutes on defense.  Kaminsky isn't normally a great defensive player, but he torched Willie Cauley-Stein at both ends of the court.  Look at these numbers:

Frank Kaminsky:  7-11 from the field, 5-6 from the line, 20 points, and 11 rebounds
Willie Cauley-Stein:  1-4 from the field, 0-0 from the line, 2 points and 5 rebounds.

Meanwhile, Dekker was doing a similar number on Trey Lyles:

Sam Dekker:  6-9 from the field, 2-4 from the line, 16 points and 3 rebounds
Trey Lyles:  3-7 from the field, 3-3 from the line, 9 points and 1 rebound

So together, Kaminsky and Dekker outscored the main people guarding them -- WCS and Lyles -- by a difference of 36-11.  Needless to say, Kentucky hadn't faced that type of mismatch all year.  I think a big part of the reason that UK was trying to run out the clock at the end of the game was that Calipari wanted to limit the number of chances for Kaminsky and Dekker to get their hands on the ball.  And I can't blame him.

Second, I don't think the Harrisons were being selfish or out of control down the stretch.  The situation was this:  WCS and Lyles were struggling, Wisconsin wasn't giving up transition baskets or putbacks, and Booker was a defensive liability.  So it was up to the Harrisons and Towns to score.  Together, they accounted for 41 of UK's 64 points.  Down the stretch, Wisconsin did a great job of defending Towns, and the Harrisons ended up taking some jumpers of a type that they often make.  They made a lot of them tonight -- they combined for 25 points in the game.  But they missed several down the stretch, and that hurt a lot.  Nevertheless, I don't think these were necessarily mistakes on Kentucky's part -- they were mostly caused by outstanding play from Wisconsin.

Third, don't forget that we Kentucky fans have been enormously fortunate in recent years.  In 2011 we beat Ohio State -- the best team in the country -- on a last-second shot.  In 2014, we beat Wichita State by 2 points, Louisville by 5 points, Michigan by 3 points, and Wisconsin by 1 point.  Only last week we came from behind to beat Notre Dame by 2 points.  And tonight we overcame a 9-point deficit and a 7-point deficit.  If you keep playing this type of nail-biter, there is a good chance that eventually, the breaks will go the  other way.

Fourth, don't forget that some tournaments are harder to win than others.  In both 1993 and 2015, the Cats had to play a great team that was a number-one seed and that was back in the Final Four for the second year in a row.  We didn't face that type of experienced, quality competition in 1996, or 1998, or 2012.  It just so happens that this season, we had a great team in the same year that Wisconsin was also loaded.

Fifth, we'll never know what could have happened if Alex Poythress hadn't gotten hurt.  I believe he would have gotten some of those rebounds tonight.

Sixth, I believe that no matter what is being said on various message boards right now, eventually most Kentucky fans will remember this team with great fondness.  I was devastated by the loss to Michigan in 1993, and I still am.  But 22 years later, I don't think so much about that game.  I remember being young and happy, and I remember how much fun it was to see so much wonderful basketball from a team I admired.  And that's eventually how most of us will remember this team.  For five months we were the best team in the country.  For five months we were undefeated.  Many of us will not see another run like this one.  And all the way to the end, our team gave it everything that they had.  As time goes on, that's what most of us will remember.

Seventh, none of this bothers me as much as it did 22 years ago.  Back then, I was in a hurry for everything, and every season that ended in failure seemed to threaten a lifetime of defeats.  But over time, I have learned that Kentucky is not necessarily doomed, that the officials don't always cheat us, and we do sometimes get the breaks, and that we can win the Big Game.  And I have learned that any team that plays hard, and does its best, and gets to the Final Four, is a team to be cherished for the ages.  We ask for so much from Kentucky basketball players.  We want them to be great players.  We want them to be role models.  We want them to make free throws.  We want them to stay calm while we go nuts.  We want them to sign our hats, and wave at us from the bus, and tell us their stories, and represent us to the world.  Very, very few Kentucky teams ever did as much to make us happy as this team did.  And for that we should be extremely grateful.

Finally, I am so, so glad to have lived my life as a Kentucky basketball fan.  Yes, we wear our heart on our sleeve.  Yes, we are over the top.  Yes, we get carried away and sometimes say or do things that we may regret.  Yes, we embraced the chance to go 40-0 -- some Kentucky fans even got tattoos to that effect.  But what's the point of living as if you're always worried about being embarrassed?  So much of American life is dull and dreary -- work, and forms, and rules, and laws that trammel up your native instincts, and force you to live by someone else's code.  It's no wonder that many of us want to belong to a different community -- one with a living tradition, and bright colors, and evil enemies, and heroic warriors, and lots and lots and lots of cheering.  Ever since Adolph Rupp showed up in 1930, Kentuckians have taken the dullest, grayest time of the year, and filled it with passion and warmth and beauty.  Since 1939, we've taken home the title eight times, and fallen short sixty-nine times.  And every time we don't make it, all Kentucky fans suffer.  And when we lose a big game, like this one, we suffer in public, in front of a lot of people who don't like us.  And that hurts.  And a lot of us won't watch the National Championship game.  And a lot of us will pout for awhile.  And a lot of us will still see this game in our mind 20, or 30, or 40 years from now.

But you know what?  Next week, all over Kentucky, little kids will be in the school gymnasium, or the church rec room, or their back yard.  They'll get a basketball, and they'll practice dribbling behind the back, or shooting hook shots, or making free throws.  They'll pretend to be Aaron Harrison, or Andrew Harrison, or Tyler Ulis, or Devin Booker, or Dominique Hawkins, or Alex Poythress, or Trey Lyles, or Marcus Lee, or Dakari Johnson, or Willie Cauley-Stein, or Karl-Anthony Towns.  Some might even pretend to be Tom Leach, and call out the play-by-play.  Some might pretend to be John Calipari, and try to tell everyone else what to do.  The dream that somehow, someway, Kentucky will play a perfect season will be passed along to a new generation.  Next October, when the leaves start to fall, and winter is coming, and it's time for all of us to go back inside, the dream will be back.  And we'll all be so, so excited to get one more chance.

The 2014-15 Kentucky Wildcats finished with a record of 38-1 overall, and 18-0 in the SEC.  They were the SEC Regular Season Champion, the SEC Tournament Champion, and the NCAA Midwest Champion.  They reached the Final Four for the fourth time in the last five seasons, and they will be memorialized with a banner in Rupp Arena.  They are the last Kentucky team to be eliminated from this years NCAA Tournament, but they will go down as one of the greatest and most beloved teams in school history.


  1. Beautiful stuff. You're the best sportswriter.

    Great points, all--and I was especially consoled by the one about Alex Poythress. I hope he's back playing next year.

    I watched last season's Wisconsin game, but I don't remember watching any of the Wisconsin players before last night. I thought Frank Kaminsky looked like as fluid, strong and skillful of a big player as I've ever seen in college basketball.

    Happy Easter, all. He is risen!

  2. Oh, one more thing. I love Ashley Judd. I'm going to plan to watch one of her movies.

  3. Coach Cal said after the game that UK was not playing "stall ball" down the stretch -- they were trying to get the ball inside and were unable to do so. That sounds right to me, and I give credit to Wisconsin for playing great defense.