Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Kentucky 95 - 73 Miami (Fla.) (Win No. 2,381)

OK, we haven't done too many of these lately.  At the beginning of the season, The Athletic ran a long article purporting to show that Coach John Calipari hasn't been the same since UK lost to Wisconsin in the 2015 Final Four.  I don't know if that's true for Cal, but it's certainly been true for me.  I have never been able to lose myself in a season like that since 2015.  If the Cats had beaten UNC and won the National Title in 2017 -- as they should have -- I might have recovered.  Or if they had beaten Auburn and gone to the Final Four in 2019 -- as they should have -- I might have recovered.  But ever since that loss to Wisconsin, it always seems like something goes wrong for the Big Blue.

But tonight, the Cats woke up the echoes.  The excitement in the Commonwealth has been building for awhile.  UK only has seven significant players, and six of them are guards.  So as I commented in the game against Kansas, they looked like one of the early Pitino teams if there was no Mashburn and no one could shoot.  They still don't have a Mashburn, but now they are starting to shoot.

They almost beat Kansas.  They were too quick for the Jayhawks, and after falling behind 9-0, they shot out to a 58-44 lead with 16:21 left in the game.  They still led 83-78 with less than 4 minutes to go, but they weren't ready to go down the stretch with the canny Jayhawks.  The Cats missed their last eight shots, finished 12-38 from behind the 3-point line, and fell 89-84.

Still, Kentucky fans took notice.  In the second quarter of the game -- the last 10 minutes of the first half -- UK had outscored KU 34-25.  Thirty-four points in ten minutes -- against Kansas!  That's pretty unusual.  And UK fans love high-scoring teams that can shoot.  So hope started to bloom.  UK came home and started making three-pointers.  They beat Stonehill 101-67.  They won a wild shootout with St. Joseph's in overtime, 96 to 88.  (In that game, the Hawks went 15-37 from three-point range, but the Cats made 12-25 in response).  And then, on the day after Thanksgiving, they smashed Marshall 118 to 82.  In that game, UK went 16-27 from three-point range, and scored the most points the Cats have ever scored under Cal.

So Rupp Arena was rocking tonight when Miami of Florida -- the number 8 team in the country -- rolled into town.  John Wall was there.  Jay Bilas was there.  The place was packed.  And it soon became evident that we were in for some drama.  The Cats jumped out to an early 21-11 lead, but then Miami went on an 18-2 run to take a 29-23 lead.  Then UK ended the half on a 19-8 run to lead 42-37 at the break.

While everyone caught their breath, UK fans worried about D.J. Wagner, the highly touted freshman point guard who had torched Marshall for 28 points on Friday.  Wagner fell and hurt himself toward the end of the first half, and it was pretty obvious he wouldn't be playing in the second half.  We've been through this sort of thing a lot in recent years, and it usually ends very badly for the Big Blue.  We still don't know what happened to Wagner, or when he'll be back.  But his absence meant that in the second half, UK's chances depended on Reed Sheppard -- the son of UK hero Jeff Sheppard -- a freshman from London, Kentucky.

Now this is why we watch.  This is why we sit through all those terrible games.  Because someday, magic can happen.  And magic happened tonight.  Sheppard was tremendous -- he finished with 21 points, 4 assists, and 3 steals.  And the Cats torched Miami.  Look at these numbers:

9-21 from 3-point range (42.9 percent)
28-41 from 2-point range (68.3 percent)
12-17 from the line (70.6 percent)

That's how you score 95 points in only 40 points, and bury Miami 95 to 73.

Now there is some fool's gold here.  The AP had Miami ranked number 8, but they probably aren't that good.  Ken Pomeroy correctly predicted that Miami's poor defense would get them in trouble -- he had them ranked 37 going into this game, and he had the Cats winning 85-79.  But 85-79 isn't 95-73, so even K-Pom underestimated the Cats somewhat.  Furthermore, UK is now shooting 42.6 percent from 3-point range, making them 5th in the nation in that category.  In all his years at UK, Cal has only had two teams that made more than 37 percent of their 3-point shots:  his 2011 and 2012 teams.  The 2011 team went to the Final Four, and the 2012 team won it all.  Giving Cal a team that can shoot three's is like giving him an extra guy on the floor.

Anyway, there's still lots to worry about.  Will Wagner come back?  If he comes back, will he be effective?  What about those three 7-footers who were supposed to play for UK this year?  Presumably the NCAA will never let the guy from Croatia play for us -- that seems like another Enes Kanter situation -- but what about the others?  And what about the defense -- Ken Pom has UK 55th in the country in defensive efficiency.  And what about the game against UNC in Atlanta?  Or the two games against Tennessee?  And so forth and so on.

But for tonight, we finally got to see the Cats play the way we want.  Basketball is, or at least should be, the most beautiful game in the world.  And tonight, that's how Kentucky played.

One more point.  Many, many people like to complain that the crowds at Rupp Arena are not sufficiently supportive.  But to me, Rupp Arena is like the world's greatest pipe organ -- you have to know how to play it.  When the Cats aren't very good -- and especially when they play ugly basketball -- the fans sit and stew.  We don't need analytics to know that if you're struggling with a small-time opponent in November, you're probably in for a long year.  And we know who can play and who can't.  On the other hand, when you've got a John Wall, or an Anthony Davis who can really make the place sing -- or when you've got a big, must-win game with Jay Bilas in the house -- Rupp is the greatest arena in college basketball.  No other place combines so much size with so much noise and so much love of the game.  Tonight, the Cats came through for us, and Rupp came through for the Cats.


  1. Other SEC scores tonight:

    Syracuse 80 - 57 L.S.U.
    Pittsburgh 64 - 71 Missouri
    Georgia Tech 67 - 59 Mississippi St.
    S. Carolina 65 - 53 Notre Dame
    Mississippi 72 - 52 N. Carolina St.

  2. That leaves Alabama, which is getting pounded 76-66 by Clemson -- in Tuscaloosa -- with 4 minutes left.

  3. Here are tomorrow's SEC matchups:

    N. Carolina v. Tennessee
    Auburn v. Virginia Tech
    Virginia v. Texas A & M
    Wake Forest v. Florida
    Arkansas v. Duke
    Florida St. v. Georgia
    Vanderbilt v. Boston Coll.

  4. I don't really know what to make of Alabama. I like their style of play, and they had really good teams in 2021 and 2023. But they do suffer some awful losses. Last year, they were the number-1 team in the Nation. They went 16-2 in the S.E.C. They won the S.E.C. Tournament, crushing A & M by 19 points in the final. They beat Maryland by 22 to reach the Sweet 16. They led San Diego St. 48-39 with 11:40 left in the game. And then they collapsed. They were outscored 32-16 the rest of the way to a San Diego State team that couldn't really score. It was one of the strangest games I ever saw.

  5. And now they're losing badly to Clemson at home. This was a Clemson team that only beat UAB by one point on a neutral floor a few weeks ago. Now they're cruising in Tuscaloosa, up 81-72 with 1:47 left.

  6. Maybe it's as simple as live by the three, die by the three. Alabama has only shot 11-34 from 3-point range in this game, while Clemson has gone 11-21. That's a big problem. And last year, the Tide went 3-27 from behind the line against San Diego State. Brandon Miller, who was the number 2 pick in the NBA Draft, went 1-10 from 3-point range by himself. So maybe that's it.

  7. But if so, then Oats has to have a Plan B. It's very rare to go through the NCAA Tournament and not have any cold-shooting games.

  8. What a great thing to read this morning after such a great game to watch last night.

  9. Of course, the Cats then fell apart against UNC Wilmington, losing 80-73. Just another example of UK being unable to get anything done in the last five minutes of a game. Cats fall to 20th on Ken Pom, and they are 311th in luck. Kansas is 9th on Ken Pom, and up to 42d on luck. So the beat goes on.

  10. Ken Pom now has UK going 21-10 for the year, and 11-7 in the SEC.

  11. Here's UK's record through 8 games since 2015:

    2016: 7-1 (Ken Pom rank: 7)
    2017: 7-1 (5)
    2018: 7-1 (13)
    2019: 7-1 (17)
    2020: 7-1 (7)
    2021: 2-6 (49)
    2022: 7-1 (19)
    2023: 6-2 (6)
    2024: 6-2 (20)