Saturday, March 19, 2016

Kentucky 85 - 57 Stony Brook (Des Moines, Iowa) (NCAA Tourn.) (No. 2,205)

OK, so here's a brief overview of the Kentucky basketball season so far.

1.  The Cats started off like a house afire -- blasting Duke 74-63 in the third game of the season, and rolling to a 7-0 record in November.  At that point, the Cats were ranked number 1 in the country and they had not lost a regular-season game in roughly 20 months.

2.  In December, UK showed some softness on the inside -- losing 87-77 at UCLA and 74-67 to Ohio State on a neutral court.  Neither UCLA nor Ohio State turned out to be good -- neither one made the NCAA Tournament -- and UK plummeted in the rankings.  But there were two good signs:  Jamal Murray scored 33 points (and went 7-9 from three-point range) in  a desperate effort to overtake Ohio State, and the Cats bounced back from that loss with a 75-73 win over Louisville.

3.  In January, the young Cats struggled to adjust to life on the road in the SEC, losing 85-67 at LSU, and blowing a 12-point lead in a 75-70 loss to Auburn.  In case you're keeping track, that's four losses to teams that would not make the NCAA's.  And believe me, the folks at the NCAA were keeping track.  The Cats fell to 13-4 (and to 30 in the Ken Pom rankings) with the loss to Auburn.  But they bounced back, beating Arkansas 80-66 (Coach Cal's first win at Arkansas), Vandy 76-57 at home, and Missouri 88-54 at home.

4.  That set up a huge game in Lawrence, Kan. with the Kansas Jayhawks.  It was the game of the day on ESPN, and it was a doozy.  The Cats made 13-22 three-pointers, and got 28 points from point guard Tyler Ulis, but couldn't overcome KU's advantage at the line.  In a game that is pretty typical in Lawrence, the Jayhawks shot 47 free throws, while UK shot only 22.  That was the difference, as KU won 90-84 in overtime.  UK then went to Knoxville, where an angry group of Wildcats zoomed out to a 34-13 lead.  But they were also a tired group of Wildcats, and the Vols pecked away, benefiting from 34 free throws (the Cats only got 23).  In the end, UT won 84-77, and Kentucky was 16-6 overall, and 6-3 in the SEC.  They were 24th in the Ken Pom rankings.

5.  But by this point the Cats were starting to find themselves.  Ulis had become one of the best point guards in the country, and Jamal Murray was becoming a devastating offensive weapon.  The Cats scored at least 80 points in four straight wins over Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and Tennessee.  Murray averaged 28.3 points per game in those wins.  The Cats were 20-7 (and 9th in Ken Pom) heading for a showdown at Texas A & M that would probably decide the regular season title.

6.  The trip to College Station was a repeat of the Kansas game.  Another ESPN Game of the Day, another hostile crowd in Cruz country, another terrible night for the referees -- the game was decided when Isaac Humphries was called for a technical foul after he celebrated what appeared to be the game-clinching rebound.  A & M won 79-77 in overtime -- and the Cats lost Derek Willis (who had just scored 25 points against Tennessee) to an injury.  The next Saturday, UK had its eighth loss of the year, 74-62 at Vandy in a game where Ulis went 0-7 from three-point range.  Heading into the last two games of the regular season, the Cats were 21-8 overall, 11-5 in the SEC, and 10th on Ken Pom.

7.  But the Cats were also ready to roll.  They went to Gainesville and dominated Florida, winning 88-79.  Then they got Willis back and crushed LSU on Senior Day, 94-77.  That left them with a regular season record of 23-8 and 13-5 in conference.  And then they buried Alabama (85-59) and Georgia (93-80) to reach the final of the SEC Tournament -- and a re-match with A & M.

8.  On Sunday, March 13, the Cats got good news and bad news.  The good news was that they captured their second straight SEC Tournament title with an 82-77 win over A & M in overtime -- the third consecutive Kentucky-A & M to go to overtime.  The bad news was that the NCAA seized upon UK's bad losses in December and January as an excuse to stick the Wildcats with a number-4 seed in the East -- and a potential match-up with Indiana in the second round.

So that was the situation as Kentucky headed to Des Moines for their first-round match-up with Stony Brook.  The Seawolves were making their first trip to the NCAA's as Champions of the America East Conference, and they were good enough to have taken Vandy to overtime in Memorial Gym.  The Seawolves also figured to have a puncher's chance, as Ken Pom ranked Kentucky at number 70 in defensive efficiency.  Furthermore, Stony Brook was fortunate to catch UK on a cold night in the first half -- the Wildcats had only 33 points at the break.  However, the Cats -- finally freed from the bad officials in the SEC -- were flying around the paint on defense, blocking 15(!) shots and holding Stony Brook to 27 percent shooting from two-point range.  The Cats led 33-19 at the half, and in the second half the offense started to roll.  Five Cats scored in double figures for the game, with Murray leading the way with 19 points.  UK put up 52 second-half points, and cruised to an 85-57 victory.

But now, of course, the Wildcats have to play Indiana.  This is an absurd match-up that is unfair to both teams,  UK is 27-8 and ranked number 6 on Ken Pom; IU is 26-7 and 15th on Ken Pom -- these two teams have no business playing for a spot in the Sweet 16.  In fact, UK tied for the regular season crown in the SEC, and IU won the regular season title in the Big 10, and I'm pretty sure that the SEC Champ and the Big 10 Champ have never met this early in the Tournament before.  And that doesn't even take the rivalry aspect of the game into account, or the bad blood between the two schools after IU refused to continue the regular-season series with UK unless the Cats agreed to play home-and-home.

Unfortunately, the NCAA simply has it in for UK and Coach Cal, and so we have to play these type of games.  Last year we had Cincinnati in the second round.  In 2014, we got an undefeated Wichita State in the second round.  In 2012, we were supposed to play defending national champs UConn in the second round, but they were upset by Iowa State.  In 2011, we got West Virginia (who had beaten us the year before) in the second round.  Now it's Indiana -- the second NCAA match-up with Indiana since Cal came to Lexington.  It's not fair, and it's not close to being fair, and no one outside of UK fans cares.  (Meanwhile, Duke, which went 23-10 in the regular season, and lost to UK, had to play UNC-Wilmington and Yale to reach the Sweet 16.  No wonder Kentucky went for Trump.)

A lot of UK fans are dismissive of IU Coach Tom Crean, who they refer to as "Coach Clappy" (watch him today and you'll see why).  I think Crean is certainly annoying, but I remember when his Marquette team (led by Dewayne Wade) crushed a very good UK team in the 2003 Final Four.  I also remember how his 2011-12 IU team scored 90 points against Anthony Davis and the Cats in the 2012 tournament.  Crean struggled in his first three seasons in Bloomington, and his teams continue to be defensively challenged, but in the last five years the Hoosiers have been very respectable:

2012:  27-9 (lost to UK in Sweet 16)
2013:  29-7 (lost to Syracuse in Sweet 16)
2014:  17-15
2015:  20-14 (lost to Wichita St. in First Round)
2016:  26-7 (?????)

This group of Hoosiers looks very much like the high-scoring bunch that we faced in 2012.  They make 41.9 percent of their three-point shots, and are fifth in the country in offensive efficiency.  If you catch them on a cold shooting night (like Michigan did in the quarter-finals of the Big 10 Tournament), you can beat them.  But they put up 99 points in the First Round against Chattanooga (they crushed the Mocs 99-74), and I have never seen a Tom Crean-coached squad shoot badly against UK.  IU's only weakness is that they are defensively challenged (they are 73d in the country in defensive efficiency), so Kentucky will have to outscore them, just as they did in 2012 (when UK won 102-90).

The Cats are certainly capable of a big game offensively -- they are number 1 in the country in offensive efficiency.  This UK team is the type of team I prefer above all others -- a high-flying offensive powerhouse led by great guards.  Tyler Ulis is the type of point guard I have always wanted the Cats to have -- a tiny genius with an uncanny ability to decide whether to shoot or pass.  Jamal Murray is my favorite type of player -- a deadly three-point shooter from all over the floor who is constantly looking to score.  But the Cats are shaky on defense, mainly because they aren't good at rebounding and they give up a lot of free throws.

The 1994 Cats -- led by Travis Ford and Tony Delk -- were a lot like this team.  They came into the tournament ranked number 7 in the country, and they won the SEC Tournament by beating Arkansas (who went on to win the National Championship) and Florida (who went to the Final Four).  However, in the second round of the tournament -- in the last game I ever watched in Paducah -- the Cats went 10-38 (!) from three-point range, and were bounced out by Marquette, 75 to 63.  The next year, a better (but similar) UK team charged to the Elite Eight, where they lost to UNC while going 7-36 from 3-point range.  So I have learned that eccentric offense-oriented squads can give you some of the greatest thrills you will have as a fan -- but they can also break your heart.

It should be a great game for neutral fans, but my guess is it will be hard to watch for anyone who really cares about the outcome.  We will hope that somehow, the Cats manage to pull out what will be a very tough win.


  1. Heartbroken. IU is better, but, also, the NC2A is despicable.

  2. By the way, this report was--no surprise--fantastic.