I have to say it again. I didn’t see it coming. The Kentucky Wildcats’ gave me no indication that they could make a glorious run to the championship game of the NCAA tournament.
When you look at the regular season run-in all you see is losses and lackluster performances.
On Feb. 27, the Cats lost to Arkansas in overtime. One might say losing in overtime to Arkansas isn’t so bad. But it was a home game. The Cats don’t lose SEC home games,but they did this year…twice. The Gators got ‘em by 10 points in February.
After the Arkansas loss came the game that many UK fans would love to forget more than any other – a humiliating loss to South Carolina, one of the worst teams in the SEC. I really thought the Cats were done after this one. I remember after this stinker hearing some of the talking heads say that if the Cats didn’t beat Alabama and then win at least one game in the SEC tournament that they might get left out of the tournament again. That’s how bad it was after the loss to the Gamecocks.
Next came a less than rousing victory over Alabama at home. The Cats’ offense was so stagnant in this one that there was a possibility of losing a third SEC game at home…in one year.
Next came what many saw as a brave performance for 30 minutes or so against Florida before finally falling apart and losing by 19 points in Gainesville.
I am not dredging up all these haunting memories to torture other Cat fans. I only bring it up to remind everybody of where the team was before the SEC tournament started.
For me it is one of the most remarkable turnarounds to a season that I have ever seen. The Cats were dead in the water in my eyes as late as March 8. Yet, here we are two days removed from watching this same group play for a national title and coming up just short.
The four games they played before the championship was some of the best basketball I saw all year from any team. I’m not a Calipari fan, but I have to admit that he did a remarkable job of getting those young kids ready to play in the tournament.
But Calipari or any other coach couldn’t have done it without the players buying in to what needed to be done to turn it around. They deserve credit for finally humbling themselves and playing as a team. They finally showed the passion and desire that seemed to be lacking in late February and early March. Whatever button Calipari pushed in the end worked and the Cats became an excellent team.
The thing I liked most about their run to the final game was that they had to win every game. None of the games were handed to them by teams that underperformed.
In the championship game the Cats struggled offensively, but the credit has to go to Connecticut for playing stifling defense and finding a way to stop penetration without giving up a ton of lob dunks and put backs. They were the only team that were able to do that against the Cats in the entire tournament. They also managed to hang with the Cats on the backboards, which no other team had done in the tournament.
So my hat is off to Connecticut whose championship run was just as remarkable as the Cats’ run. Remember this is a team who lost by 33 points to Louisville in early March and then fell to the Cards again in the AAC tournament just a couple of weeks later. In fact the Cards beat the Huskies three times by a combined 53 points this year, which must leave Ricky P., his players and all their fans scratching their heads.
Huskies’ coach Kevin Ollie has done something that many coaches have found almost impossible. He followed a coaching legend and in just two years brought the school another championship. This feat is not like Tubby Smith’s follow-up win after Pitino left UK. He had only two players returning from the team Calhoun led to a national championship four years ago.
Those two players, Niels Giffey and Shabazz Napier were key players in this year’s run. Both played as freshmen role players for Calhoun’s last championship team. Napier has come a long way in four years. I remember him as a brash rookie who took a lot of bad shots in those days. This year, he showed maturity, poise and good decision-making skills in leading the team to the championship.
In fact, Napier and UK’s fabulous freshmen are examples in both sides of the argument about how long players should have to stay in school before jumping to the pros.
McIntosh wins Henry Hoopla
Congratulations to 14-year old Devin McIntosh who held on for a one-point win in our Henry Hoopla bracket contest. McIntosh totaled 83 points to beat out Shelley McAlister of Franklin, Ky. Margaret Capito finished third with 80 points.
Of the 213 entrants in our contest exactly zero picked UConn to win the championship.
McIntosh and Capito picked UK to win it all and McAlister picked the Cats to fall to Florida in the final game.
Dinosaur Part 2
Last week I wrote that I felt like a dinosaur for not knowing that I could run our bracket contest online.
That very day I went to Taylorsville Lake to do some fishing with my father-in-law. Right before we left, I remembered that I hadn’t purchased a new fishing license yet. I felt bad because this would delay our start because we had to drive several miles out of our way to get to a place where I could buy one.
When I told Chuck this he said, “Oh you can go online and get it. That’s how I got mine.” Chuck proceeded to whip out his iPad and show me how to go about it. He was very proud of the fact that he could show his son-in-law another new use for technology. I didn’t feel any less like a dinosaur after that incident.