Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Kentucky 75 - 63 Illinois St. (No. 2,185)

So how do you get into a new basketball season?  To be more specific, how do you get into a new basketball season after your team has lost in the Final Four two years in a row, and you spent five months of the last season believing -- really believing -- that you had the best team in the country, only to watch your heroes fall to Wisconsin in the National Semi-Finals?  How do you get into a new basketball season when the last season ended with Duke -- Duke! -- taking the National Championship that should have been ours?  How do you get into a new basketball season when North Carolina is ranked number one to open the season by the Associated Press and Duke -- Duke! -- is the third team on the schedule?  How do you get into a new basketball season when almost all of your favorite players are gone and you have to start all over with a new group -- and don't we remember how UK's young teams struggled in 2013 and most of 2014?

Well, if you're me, it isn't very easy.  I will be honest:  the loss to Wisconsin last year hurt much more than I ever admitted on the Heath Post -- it was a dreadful, miserable experience that ranks pretty high on the list of Most Painful Defeats:  not as high as the loss to LSU in the 1986 Elite Eight (because last year's team did at least reach the Final Four), but much higher than the losses to UConn in 2011 and 2014 (because I never expected those teams to go as far as they did).  From my perspective, last season was one of those National Championship or Bust years, and they went bust.  I'm not mad at the team or Calipari -- I know they did their best, and what makes college basketball so great is that the tournament is so hard to win.  But I was very, very tired when that season was over, and I didn't know how long it would be before I could get excited again.

And besides, I've never gotten used to how the college basketball schedule has changed since I was a kid.  In the 1977-78 season, Kentucky didn't play its first game until November 26, and the Cats didn't play their seventh game until December 23.  These days, UK usually plays more games in November than in December -- the Cats played seven games in November this year, and I just wasn't ready for that much basketball.

Plus, I was certain they would lose that game to Duke.  Here's a true fact:  I've been watching Kentucky since 1975, and I had never seen Kentucky beat Duke in the regular season.  In my time as a fan, we were 0-5 in those games, and I figured the same thing would happen again this year.  Given that I had to watch Wisconsin play so badly in the Final against Duke last year, and had to watch the Dukies celebrate a National Championship, I had no desire to watch them beat UK.

But fortunately for me, Coach Cal and the guys aren't haunted by all of this history.  So they went to Chicago on November 17, and whipped the Blue Devils 74-63 -- UK's biggest margin of victory over Duke since December 20, 1969.  And then UNC lost at Northern Iowa, and UK was back to being ranked number one.  That was fun.  And then UK got a bunch of great new recruits for next year, and that was exciting.  Still, it was early, there was lots of football and family stuff going on with Thanksgiving, and I figured I could catch up in December.

Then Tyler Ulis got hurt against South Florida.

Now there are two types of players I prefer to all others -- shooting guards who can really shoot, and point guards who can really pass.  I always tend to over-estimate the value of such players, because it's just so much fun to watch them play.  (By contrast, I significantly under-estimate the value of solid defenders who get lots of rebounds.  Chuck Hayes was one of UK's greatest players ever, and I thought the Cats wouldn't miss him all that much after the 2005 season -- after all, we still had Rajon Rondo and Patrick Sparks.  It was only years later, when I saw Ken Pomeroy's data, that I realized that -- just as I had expected -- UK's offense did improve from 2005 to 2006.  But without Hayes, the defense fell apart, so UK's record went from 28-6 to 22-13.)  So Ulis, from the moment he stepped on the floor, has been one of my very favorite players, and I was really pleased he came back.  He had shredded the Duke defense, and had already proved himself a leader who was not only eager -- but willing -- to tell the other guys what they're supposed to be doing.  I wasn't worried about UK's game with South Florida, in part, because I figured Ulis would find a way for UK to win.  And he did.  But he got hurt.

From my perspective, Ulis's injury changed everything.  With him out there, I knew the ball would be going to the right person, and that everyone would have to pay attention.  Without him, I figured we would be in for one of those games like we had back in 2013 and early 2014, with lots of turnovers and awkward play.  And besides, we were playing Illinois State -- the type of Midwestern mid-major that has given us trouble before.  Remember how John Wall had to hit a last-second shot to beat Miami of Ohio in 2009?  Or how the Cats just barely survived Cleveland State in November 2013?  I do.  I don't know how UK schedules these early-season games -- I assume Calipari has something to do with it, but I can never tell how they pick the teams that we play.  But I know that for some reason, we often seem to have a violent Midwestern team on there.

And so I tuned in last night -- the first time this season that I've been eager to watch the Cats.  And it was pretty much as awful as I expected.  Without Ulis, the Cats couldn't score in transition or get the ball to freshman center Skal Labissiere (he finished with two points, both on free throws, and went 0-1 from the field).  Games like this also tend to involve lots of missed shots, and the Cats made only one three-pointers in the first half, and they missed a ton of free throws.  Meanwhile, Illinois State was banging into people, throwing themselves all over the court, and getting lots of rebounds and put-backs.  It was miserable -- but not unfamiliar.  After all, I've been suffering through games like this since the Ford Administration.  In my mind, beating Duke by eleven points doesn't represent college basketball any more than birthday cake represents food.  So for me, the 2015-16 college basketball season really began last night.

Of course, Calipari and the guys weren't freighted down by my worries over Ulis, or my general gloomy pessimism.  He's a great coach, and the Cats are mostly basketball prodigies who have rarely known defeat -- so they tend to think that everything will work out.  And it usually does.  From their perspective, UK was tied 31-all at the half not because of jinxes, or bad luck, or any such superstition.  They just needed to rebound more, and play better defense.  And so they did, and the next thing you know it was 56-40 in UK's favor, and soon afterward another victory was in the books.  Credit should go to Marcus Lee, who was KenPom's MVP of the game:  13 points and 12 rebounds.  Freshman guard Isaiah Briscoe (18 points and 7 rebounds) ran the offense for most of the way, and freshman guard Jamal Murray (16 points, 5 rebounds) remained mostly unflappable despite being banged around for most of the evening.  If the Cats hadn't been so dreadful at the line (they made only 20 of 39 free throws), the margin would have been even more impressive.

So the Cats are 7-0 for the second year in a row.  That may not seem like a big deal, but the Cats haven't started consecutive seasons with records of 7-0 since 1982-83 and 1983-84.  Of course, the Cats have also won 38 regular season games in a row, and I have no idea the last time that happened.  But I will say that I have enjoyed every single one of those victories, and I hope the wagon keeps rolling on Thursday night at UCLA.

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