Sunday, February 13, 2022

Kentucky 78 - 57 Florida (No. 2,348)

Let's talk about 2015.

For Kentucky fans, it was the last in a whole series of amazingly dramatic seasons:

2010:  John Wall and the return of UK.
2011:  UK beats Ohio State and UNC; goes to the Final Four for the first time since 1998
2013:  Nerlens Noel goes down; U of L wins the National Championship
2014:  The Tweak -- UK storms to the Finals as a Number 8 seed

And in 2015, it all came together.  Calipari combined the experience of his 2014 back court with one of the best freshman classes in history.  Kentucky went 38-0.  They beat UNC by 14.  They beat Kansas by 32.  They beat UCLA by 39.  Of all the teams for which Ken Pomeroy has data going back to 2002, none has better efficiency numbers than Kentucky in 2015.  For four months, it appeared that Kentucky's 2015 team would stand as the Wildcats' ultimate statement of how basketball should be played.

Then it all ended in tears.  For a full year, Wisconsin had stalked the Wildcats, waiting for revenge for UK's beating them in the 2014 Final Four.  With 5:16 left in the game, Kentucky led 60-56, and Ken Pom gave Wisconsin only a 16.8 percent chance of winning.  But the Badgers had waited a year for this chance, and they pounced.  They outscored UK 15-4, eliminated Kentucky 71-64, and ended our dream.

And then, with a nine-point lead in the second half against Duke, the Badgers collapsed.  After all, they'd already won the game they really cared about.  So our year ended up being Duke's year.

It was exhausting, and disappointing, and horrible.  And I think it damaged all of us.  But the suffering wasn't over.  After a very quiet year in 2016, the Cats stormed back in 2017 with a spectacular team.  Of course, the NCAA gave us a ludicrous seed.  In the second round, we had to play a Wichita State team that was 31-4 and looking for revenge from 2014.  The Cats survived them 65-62.  In the Sweet 16, we had to play a UCLA team that had beaten UK at Rupp earlier in the year.  The Cats crushed them 86-75.  And then, in the Elite Eight, Kentucky had to play the same UNC team it had already beaten 103-100 in Vegas during the regular season.  This was an absurd matchup in the quarter-finals, as UK and UNC were obviously the two best teams in the country, they had already played each other, and they should not have met before the final.  And then it got even more absurd as UK had to deal with one bad officiating call after another.  The Wildcats (who were certainly better than UNC) overcame all of them, and were only 0.3 seconds from overtime when they were beaten 75-73 by a buzzer-beater.  UK fans went online and savaged the official who they blamed for the loss.  Meanwhile, more bad calls the UNC to victories over Oregon and Gonzaga.  Our year ended up being UNC's year.

At that point, I felt like a fool.  How could I devote so much time to something that was just a few steps above pro wrestling?  And I wasn't alone.  The air sort of went out of UK's balloon.  The Cats still had their moments, but continued to disappoint:

In 2018, they won the SEC Tournament, but blew a very winnable Sweet 16 game against Kansas State.

In 2019, they reached the Elite Eight against an Auburn team they had already beaten twice.  They lost in overtime.

In 2020, they had a clever, game team with a real talent for pulling out close wins -- but a weakness for bad losses.  I really liked this team.  In the last game of the regular season, they trailed 59-41 at Florida, while their starting point guard sulked in Lexington.  But they came all the way back for a 71-70 win where they never led until the very end -- one of the greatest road wins in UK history.  And then, just as we were all getting excited again, the NCAA canceled the tournament.

2021, of course, didn't feel like a real basketball season at all.  And the Cats responded by fielding a team that managed to be both quite poor and extremely unlucky.

By the beginning of this season, you could tell that lots of Kentuckians were seeing basketball as something to dread.  The whole program had that sort of grim, burned out feeling that I remembered from the 1980's.  And sure enough, the Cats were completely dominated by Duke in the opener.  And a month later, they lost their first road game against a fairly unimpressive Notre Dame team.  The Cats slid to number-21 on Ken Pom.  So we kept getting stories about empty seats at Rupp, and an air of malaise seemed to have overtaken the program.

But then things changed.  Instead of playing an Ohio State team that had beaten Duke, the Omicron surge gave us a matchup with UNC instead.  The Cats played their best game in years, pounding the Heels 98-69.  U of L had to cancel their game with UK because of Omicron, but Western showed up -- and the Cats beat them by 35.  Suddenly the air started to come back into the balloon.  Of course, road games in the SEC continue to be the same violent slog that we all remember.  Sahvir Wheeler got hurt at LSU, and the Cats lost 65-60.  TyTy Washington got hurt at Auburn, and the Cats lost 80-71.  But the Cats were playing well despite the injuries, and they even managed to survive an overtime game at Rupp against a very dangerous Mississippi State team.  In two of their few games at full strength, they crushed Tennessee at Rupp 107-79, and buried Kansas (in Kansas) 80-62.  For the first time in years, Kentucky was good enough to dream.

Last week they picked up two huge road victories in places where the Cats have long struggled.  They beat Alabama 66-55 in Tuscaloosa and beat South Carolina 86-76 in Columbia.  Of course, UK suffered another injury at South Carolina, as Jacob Toppin was injured after scoring 10 points in only six minutes.  But that's just par for the course these days.  So a huge crowd turned up at Rupp on Saturday to welcome the Cats home for a game with Florida.

Since Billy Donovan left, Mike White has turned Florida into another one of those teams that tries to grind out low-scoring wins with tough, physical defense.  The ESPN announcers said that when White was asked about keeping the game score in the 60's, he joked that he wanted to keep it in the 30's.  But the Cats were rolling from the beginning, and jumped out to an early 20-6 lead that had Rupp roaring.  Of course, that couldn't last, so Sahvir Wheeler was called for two quick fouls and he got to spend the rest of the first half on the bench.  Without their point guard, UK's offense stalled, and the Cats led by only 33-28 at the half.  Same as it ever was.

But Wheeler was back in the second half, and it was soon clear that the Gators had no chance.  With Wheeler and Washington harassing the Florida guards, Kentucky got turnovers that it turned into runouts.  Meanwhile, Oscar Tshiebwe was simply dominating the entire Florida front line (he finished 27 points and 19 rebounds).  In one of the best plays I've ever seen, Wheeler, Washington, and Tshiebwe charged out on a 3-on-1 break.  Wheeler in the middle, passed to Washington on his right -- and when the Florida defensive player went over to stop Washington, TyTy threw a lob to Tshiebwe, who had kept pace with the two guards all the way down the floor.  Tshiebwe threw down a thunderous dunk, and Rupp went joyfully nuts.  In that moment, no matter how I felt in 2015, or after that horrible in UNC game in 2017, I could only feel sorry for anyone who isn't a Kentucky basketball fan.

Soon thereafter, however, the mood shifted.  Brandon McKissic of Florida, trying to prevent yet another Gator turnover, crashed into TyTy Washington, and Washington went down hard.  He jumped up and limped off, past the Kentucky bench, heading straight for the locker room.  Not surprisingly, the refs didn't call a foul on the Gators.

Of course, the broadcasters on ESPN, and the media on Twitter, rushed in to assure us that it was all an accident.  But the folks at Rupp were having none of it.  We're sick of watching teams field football players who try to make up for their lack of basketball talent with sheer physicality.  We're tired of hard fouls, and teams that hold the ball as much as possible, and games where you can't run any offense inside the three point line because everyone is getting held.  And we're especially fed up with big, awkward players who throw themselves all over the place and cause injuries. We've seen too much of that this year.

I know some people think that the crowd at Rupp consists entirely of rich people who don't like basketball.  But of course that's nonsense.  Down through the years, the crowd at Rupp has always been there whenever UK really needed it.  In the overtime game against Mississippi State a few weeks ago, the crowd was fantastic.  And they came through again yesterday.

The Rupp crowd immediately pulled out an old-school rooting tactic I hadn't seen at UK in decades.  Every time McKissic touched the ball, no matter what he was doing, the whole place exploded in boos.  Of course, this didn't bother Florida too much at first -- the Gators were still within about 10 points, and after all they know that they have to make up for lack of basketball skill by getting as close to dirty play as possible.  But a few minutes later, UK's Lance Ware -- pressed into service in large part because he's big enough to scrap with Florida's linebackers -- got into a struggle over a loose ball.  The refs (of course) called a foul on Ware.  After the whistle blew, and while Ware was standing with his back to the play, Gator Phlandrous Fleming came dashing up to shove Ware in the back.  The Kentucky bench jumped up as one, an assistant coach for UK grabbed Ware to prevent any more controversy, and the UK fans screamed for revenge.

Of course, there was no technical foul on Florida for shoving Ware in the back, and that announcement did not improve the mood at Rupp.  Now the crowd was booing every time Fleming touched the ball -- and still booing McKissic whenever he got the ball.  It was a madhouse.  And for the first time since 2017, and possibly the first time since the end of 2015, I felt like Kentucky fans (including me) were fully engaged.  The University of Kentucky basketball program is all about excellence and passion.  Ever since the North Carolina game, the players had given us excellence.  Now we were finally paying them back with passion.

Normally, when UK has a win in hand, Cal tries to end the game with as little drama as possible.  Unlike Pitino, and most Kentucky fans, Cal doesn't like to run up the score, so you don't usually see the Cats pouring it on in the last few minutes.  But yesterday, Cal kept the starters in all the way to the end, and they crushed Florida.  Kellen Grady had started off by hitting his first three three-pointers of the game, and then missed seven in a row, causing concern among the UK faithful.  So on UK's last possession of the game, when Wheeler drove to the basket -- only to pass all the way back out to a wide-open Grady -- Rupp started buzzing in anticipation.  And when Grady's three went through to put UK up 78-57 -- the final score and its biggest lead of the day -- everyone celebrated.  The game ended with Tshiebwe and other Cats standing at center court, waving their arms for more noise, while the whole place went crazy.

It was UK's largest margin of victory over Florida since 1999.  And so now, for the first time in several years, it feels like Kentucky and its fans are ready to believe again.  Right now, UK is 3d on Ken Pom:  4th in offense, and 12th in defense.  Since 1997, the Cats have only had four teams with a higher adjusted efficiency margin than they have today, and all four of those teams (1997, 1998, 2012, 2015) went to the Final Four.  But the Cats face an array of challenges.  Washington's x-ray was negative, and Cal seems confident that he'll be back, but probably not for at least a few games.  We still don't know when Toppin will return.  And look at top of the SEC standings (conference records only, numbers represent Ken Pom rankings):

5.  Auburn:  11-1
3.  Kentucky:  10-2
10.  Tennessee:  9-3
22.  Arkansas:  8-4
16.  LSU:  6-6
18.  Alabama:  6-6
54.  Florida:  6-6

For once, the SEC is loaded.  Now look at UK's last six games:

2/15:  at Tennessee
2/19:  ALABAMA
2/26:  at Arkansas
3/5:  at Florida

Yes, you read it right:  the Cats will finish with five of six games against the top of the conference, including three very difficult road games.  And it seems obvious that we will have to go to Knoxville without Washington or Toppin.  Since getting hammered at Rupp, the Vols have lost only one game, and that was a one-point loss at Texas.  They will be loaded for bear, and if you think Florida was violent on Saturday wait until you see what happens Tuesday night.

And heartbreak is still the most likely end for this season.  Is there much of a chance that Duke's going to lose the NCAA Tournament in Coach K's last season?  But, like a lot of Kentucky fans, I've tried indifference -- and I've learned that indifference is worse than heartbreak.  

Besides, we have to think of the kids.  In 1975, Kentucky lost to UCLA in the finals, as John Wooden won the title in his last season.  I'm sure that if I had been 56 years old in 1975, I would have been cynical about that whole outcome.  But I was 9 years old in 1975, and UK's run through the tournament was the most exciting thing I'd ever seen.  I became a fan for life.  And my guess is that this year, with this team, a lot of 9-year-olds across the Commonwealth will do the same.

1 comment:

  1. Indifference is absolutely worse than heartbreak. And yes about the 9-year-olds.

    This whole thing was great, as usual.