The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
Big Blue Nation woke up this morning in a very unfamiliar position. It’s not the fact that the University of Kentucky basketball team earned its way into its 16th Final Four after outlasting Michigan Sunday. The team has been there before. No, it’s more the fact that Cat fans are just happy to be here. This Final Four trip is a gift that was not unwrapped until Aaron Harrison’s three-pointer with four seconds to go broke a tie and added one more weekend to what has become an amazing story.
The unusual thing is that BBN is relishing this newfound role as underdog. Normally, it's been "big, bad Kentucky" beating up on (or being upset by) some poor unfortunate. Cat fans bite their nails and whine throughout the game because their team is supposed to win and they are afraid of losing. Believe me, I am speaking from personal experience! Guilty as charged! But this year, there's no pressure because Kentucky was not supposed to be here. I even poured my first Makers Mark on the rocks at halftime Sunday and actually enjoyed the second half. When Kentucky is favored, the lovely Miss Jean hides the MM until the game is over! Different expectations, different guy!
Kentucky's unexpected presence in the Final Four also has some historical implications. This Final Four run will be the first time Kentucky has ever worn its road blue jerseys in every game it plays after the opening round. The home jerseys go to the higher seeds, and as a No. 8 seed, and the lowest remaining, Kentucky will wear its road jerseys. Only once before has a No. 8 seed with ten losses won the NCAA men’s championship, and that was Villanova that won the 1985 title, coincidentally, at Rupp Arena.
So how can this team still be playing when the more favored programs, at least according to Clark Kellogg and Steve Smith on CBS, are sitting at home? Good old Charles Barkley stood up for UK against Kellogg and Smith in every game and was the only one of the so-called experts who knew what he was talking about. Closer to home, only the bluest bloods in BBN did not give up after Kentucky limped home in its last four regular season games, an overtime loss to Arkansas at Rupp Arena, a shocking loss at last-place South Carolina, an unimpressive win over Alabama and then a blowout loss at No. 1 Florida.
But then Coach John Calipari announced that he met with the players, admitted he had micro-coached them all year and told them to have fun in the SEC tournament. He called it a “tweak,” but the result was an impressive 85-67 win over LSU and a methodical 70-58 victory over Georgia. The proof that something different was happening was the SEC tournament final in which they played Florida dead even until James Young slipped and fell before he could take what could have been the winning shot. Did I mention the Gators were ranked No. 1 in the land? Kentucky suddenly was not only playing to their pre-season hype, they were actually having fun. Could the light finally have gone on in these young noggins or did Calipari finally, after months of excusing their erratic performance as “that’s what freshmen do,” finally figure out how to harness their talent?
Whatever the answer, the Cats started off their NCAA run with a workmanlike performance against a gritty Kansas State team. Then, as a four-point underdog, they came from behind to upset undefeated Wichita. After that game, now considered one of the best in tournament history, Kentucky was playing with house money. BBN was just happy to still be around, facing hated Louisville in the Sweet 16. Kentucky was a five-point underdogs to the Cardinals, which looked safe after they fell behind by double digits in the first half, but they came back and won. Ditto against Michigan, when they found themselves down by ten midway through the first half only to close it to 37-37 at halftime and keep it close enough to pull ahead at the wire.
Whether Kentucky wins its ninth NCAA title or not, Calipari’s strategy of recruiting freshmen who might only play one year in college has been vindicated. His 2010 team lost in the regional final, but might have been his best with freshmen John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe. He took a more veteran team to the 2011 Final Four, but it was led by freshmen Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones. He won the 2012 championship with a team led by freshmen Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague but supported by veterans such as Darius Miller.
However, he had never done it with a team that relied almost entirely on rookies. But, hey, if he wants to endure the gray hairs of teaching pups, that's his biz. So long as the light finally goes on and they play like they have the past two weeks. Don’t get me wrong. I still wish the NBA Players Association would agree to a two-year obligation for recruits. If that happened, I am sure Calipari would “tweak” his recruiting strategy and rarely find his team playing the underdog role again.
Kentucky fans have always considered Louisville as the city slicker cousin it never really liked. They knew that when the city cousins came to the country, they would spend all their time griping about the drainage that led to overflowing sewers, and how the police always showed up a half-hour after they were called and how the buses never ran on time. Their blue-blood cousins listened patiently, sitting on the veranda with a mint julep in hand while looking over the rolling green fields of thoroughbred race horses and white picket fences. Eventually, it was time to leave, and the country cousins would pat their city cousins on the head and send them home with a loaf of zucchini bread and a road map.
That might still be true in parts of the Heartland, but when the subject is basketball, the two are much more alike than either would ever admit. Since the Great Depression, Kentucky basketball was king with national championships and all-stars like Bill Spivey, Cliff Hagan, Frank Ramsey and Dan Issel moving on to professional stardom. Their dominance was so profound that their fans once treated UCLA as a flash in the pan just because their dominance was short-lived, relative to Kentucky’s multi-generational accomplishments.
And then a strange thing happened, thanks partly to UCLA whose assistant head coach departed the West Coast and decided that the University of Louisville was ready to reach that same level of national prominence. Denny Crum took a program with a record of good players such as Wes Unseld, Butch Beard and Charlie Tyra and injected some of the UCLA swagger. His team was a missed free throw from playing Kentucky in the 1975 title game (won by UCLA), and, after UK won another NCAA title in 1978, Crum’s Cards won two titles of their own, in 1980 and 1986.
Still, Kentucky was called the Roman Empire of college basketball in 1991, when it hired its own version of a city slicker who now happens to be coach at Louisville. Rick Pitino restored the Wildcats’ fortunes after the Eddie Sutton scandals, and UK won another two titles in 1996 and 1998. Then Pitino went on tour, Kentucky hired another city slicker, and the two teams met in the 2012 Final Four in New Orleans. Kentucky won that one, but the Cards came back and won it all in 2013 to regain the coveted title as the best college team in the state. You see the pattern?
The pendulum is still pointing to Louisville, which is 31-5 and, according to many experts, is the team to beat. Louisville was so dominating at the end of the season that it beat one team by 61 points, and if you've not spent time on YouTube gawking at forward Montrezl Harrell's dunks, please do so now. Kentucky, with its slowly maturing Best Recruiting Class of All Time, finally looks like it can challenge U of L, despite its No. 8 seed and ten losses this year. UK looked like a different team as it won two games in the SEC tournament before a slick floor took away a final shot in the 61-60 loss to top-ranked Florida.
But all that was then, and the NCAA tournament is now. The Wildcats ground out a first-round game against Kansas State before the thrilling victory over Wichita. Louisville's first two tournament games were wretched. All-American guard Russ “Russdiculous” Smith couldn't shoot or pass and looked disinterested. Louisville also lost an earlier game against Kentucky this year, where it was outrebounded and outmuscled. Neither of Louisville's two guards are over 6 feet. Kentucky's Harrison twins, Aaron and Andrew, each stand 6-foot-6. But Smith is due, and he has always played UK tough while three-point shooter Luke Hancock could hit a dozen from outside if the young Cats do not defend the line, which they sometimes ignore.
You want more comparisons? Kentucky fans fear Pitino's reputation as the prince of preparation. The Cards will have had five days to get ready, five days for Pitino to study video, sweat the details, craft a scouting report and put a plan into action. Louisville fans fear Calipari's motivational tactic of the moment, the way the Kentucky coach can preach and tweak — Cal says he's working on a third "tweak" — and have his team rise to the occasion. Kentucky fans fear Pitino's full-court press, one they know all too well. Louisville averages 10 steals a game, and its two NCAA opponents last weekend turned the basketball over 33 times. Kentucky's young guards played well in St. Louis, but they are still young guards. Louisville fans fear the size Calipari has lured to Lexington. The Cards' weakness is the Cats' strength.
So now, which side of the family do you like? Back in the Bluegrass, the trash talk is going back and forth at a steady pace, which is noting new. I even have an uncle who rooted for Louisville solely because he knew it ticked off my mother, a fanatical Cat fan. The family affair reached Russdiculous heights two years ago leading up to the Cats-Cards matchup in the Final Four when two dialysis patients began throwing punches after disagreeing on which team would win. This year appears to be more civilized with the official trash talk including a friendly bet between two Kentucky congressmen. Republican U.S. Rep. Andy Barr of Lexington and Democratic U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth of Louisville announced a friendly wager on the outcome of the game, with the winner taking home a bottle of bourbon from every distillery in the other's home district.
Barr must feel confident. If Louisville wins, Barr would be on the hook to deliver a bottle from Buffalo Trace, Woodford Reserve, Four Roses, Wild Turkey, Town Branch and Barrel House Distillery. But if Kentucky wins, Barr can send his city slicker cousin home with a loaf of zucchini bread and a pat on the head.
Two images stick out to me after a weekend of terrific basketball in the first round of the NCAA men’s tournament. The first was the image of the young Kansas fan, with tears rolling uncontrollably down his cheeks, after Stanford upset his Jayhawks to advance to next week’s Round of 16. The second was the thigh-high hip bump between 7-foot Willie Cauley-Stein and 5-9 Jarrod Polson after Kentucky outlasted unbeaten Wichita. To me, those images reflect the agony and the ecstasy of sports, emotions that most avid fans will experience if they follow their favorite team long enough.
The young fan’s image, continually shown by CBS after the game and later during game updates, drew much criticism that the network was invading the privacy of a young fan’s grief. The twits who tweet were out in force, sending out examples like these: “What in the world was freaking CBS doing, leaving that poor child on camera for like 20 seconds?” “CBS is so tacky for continuing to show that little boy. He's crying his eyes out and y’all pan the camera to him 3 times.” “Man, CBS is straight harassing this kid on camera.”
You can debate the propriety of showing the image over and over again, but I believe it is an apt expression of the emotions we all carry with our favorite teams. I will admit that I haven’t cried after a Kentucky loss since college. (Hey, it was a regional final that I attended with a plane ticket in my pocket to the Final Four!) But it still shows the emotion of sports that we generate at a young age. I am not going to re-visit the metaphor that “sports reflects life; sometimes you win and sometimes you lose,” but the image was touching and appropriate.
The other image, of the Kentucky players celebrating, reflected pure joy, a classic display of enthusiasm and excitement after their team won one of the all-time exciting NCAA tournament games. Kentucky is not usually an underdog, but Wichita was undefeated, and the Wildcats have been criticized all season for their “one and done” reputation as a way-stop for NBA apprenticeships. I’m not sure I always buy into UK Coach John Calipari’s psychological messages to his team, especially the one that Kentucky was the most overanalyzed team in the country this year. But every coach has his tactics to get his team’s attention, and I understand the motivation. The juxtaposition of the 7-foot Cauley-Stein and the 5-9 Polston only added a comical twist to the expression.
And how are your brackets doing this morning? I am relatively pleased that I picked eleven of the sixteen teams that will play this weekend. As regular readers know, last week’s column on picking the No. 12 seeds earned three wins in the opening round that could have been four if North Carolina State could hit foul shots. I gave Stephen F. Austin a little more credit than they deserved, predicting an upset of UCLA in the second game which did not happen. In another miscue, I actually had penciled in Baylor to beat Creighton, but then after reading Sports Illustrated’s paean to the Blue Jay’s Doug McDermott as the next Larry Bird, I switched my vote. And lost!
I also gave the old Big East too much credit, picking Syracuse and Villanova to still be alive. I thought Kansas would lose in the second game, but to New Mexico and not Stanford. Who saw Dayton coming? I didn’t. I did have faith in the Southeastern Conference, picking Florida and Tennessee to survive into the Round of 16. (Don’t say “Sweet Sixteen,” because the Kentucky High School Athletic Association has that phrase trademarked for its tournament.)
And after a slugfest victory over Kansas State and Sunday’s magnificent game with Wichita, I still believe Kentucky will go all the way, rounding out my Final Four with Arizona, Florida and Michigan State. I know they will go all the way to Indianapolis where they take on arch-rival Louisville Friday night. I can’t wait. What a great time of year, whether you wind up hip-bumping with a seven-footer or crying on national television.
Filling out your NCAA tournament bracket has become one of the exciting events of the year for the American sporting public. The attraction is that you do not need any special skills or prior training to make the picks. Anybody can play and anybody can win. We go into it with eyes wide open, knowing that our selections are going to finish behind some family dog that picks the Final Four teams by plucking the correct dog biscuits from his dinner bowl or the school girl who wins because she likes the participants’ colors or nicknames. Doesn’t matter.
Basketball enthusiasts who before this week thought Mercer was a rap star or that Creighton was a French automobile have spent the past three days studying the participants to develop a rock-hard conviction on who is hot and who is not. These long-time sufferers of Bracketosis know the true key to winning is to pick some early upsets that will throw your opponents’ bracket into total chaos. And the place to find those upsets is clear. Since the NCAA adopted the current 64-team tournament in 1985, 35 teams that were seeded 12th have won games. That means on average at least one, and sometimes two, No. 12 seeds win each year. So, after having spent at least thirty minutes carefully examining the No. 12 seeds, I hereby offer three upsets which I picked that will catapult my bracket to victory.
Stephen F. Austin, a No. 12 seed in the South Regional, will beat VCU, the darling of the 2011 Final Four. You have to like the Lumberjacks’ 32-2 record, which includes 28 consecutive wins. That’s an eye-opening number in any league and has many considering the Lumberjacks to be this year’s version of Florida-Gulf Coast, primed to blow up the bracket. Stephen F. Austin is a dangerous offensive team, shooting 52.7 from the field with four players averaging between 12 and 14.3 points per game. The team’s 547 total assists rank eighth in the country and their assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.49 rates 11th overall. The Lumberjacks’ rebound percentage of 54.9 ranks seventh nationally, which suggests toughness, which they will need in facing the more talented higher seeds. The downside is that their success has come in the Southland Conference, of which UNO is a member, and they do not have any quality victories over ranked teams.
North Dakota State, a No. 12 seed in the West Regional will beat Oklahoma. N.D. State is an experienced team of three seniors, a junior and a sophomore starting, and a bench where two seniors are among their top three reserves. But more compelling than experience is that they play together well. Thanks to long, grinding possessions, the Bison work their way toward high-percentage shots, making 56.2 percent of their two-pointers (second best in the country) while managing to have the nation’s lowest percentage of such attempts blocked. Combined with strong free-throw shooting (75.4%), adequacy from outside (34.9%) and a low turnover rate (15.5%, 25th nationally), the effect is a highly efficient if not flashy offense that seems perfectly suited to slow down a higher seed.
Harvard will defeat Cincinnati in the East Regional. The Crimson have become the trendy pick this year, partly because last year Harvard won its first NCAA tournament game in history last year, when it upset New Mexico as a No. 14 seed. This year, it won a third straight Ivy League title, which has put the 26-4 Crimson in the spotlight. Getting to 60 points will be a benchmark with two of the best defenses in the country meeting. The physicality of the Bearcats is matched by the stubborn man-to-man the Crimson play. Cincinnati entered the tournament with the sixth-best scoring defense in the country, giving up 58.3 points. Harvard is right behind, No. 13 overall, allowing just 60.5 points. Wesley Saunders was the Ivy League player of the year, but Harvard features a balanced attack. All five starters averaged at least 10 points per game and eight different players led Harvard in scoring in games this season. In a close game, Harvard’s discipline will prevail.
For the record, I also picked the fourth No. 12 seed, North Carolina State, to defeat St. Louis in the Midwest Region. T.J. Warren is a beast, averaging nearly 25 points a game, and the ACC competition has toughened the Wolfpack, which beat Xavier in a play-in game.
My top pick? Kentucky, naturally, but with more than sentiment backing me up. In the SEC tournament, the Wildcats finally looked like the team John Calipari thought he had at the start of the season. Only a slick spot on the floor prevented them from beating No. 1 Florida for the title, and I see a rematch in the NCAA championship game. The Wildcats will have to get past Wichita, Louisville and Arizona, among others, to get there. But like the history of successful No. 12 seeds, there is a historical precedent.
In 1985, another No. 8 seed with ten losses named the Wildcats won the championship, coincidentally, at Rupp Arena. Those Wildcats were from Villanova, but nobody with any sense was picking them either.
My kids gave me a shirt a year or so ago with the inscription “Old Guys Rule” on the back. I proudly put on that shirt Sunday afternoon after so many seniors led their teams to spots in the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament which begins this week. Don’t get me wrong, I am a die-hard Kentucky fan, whose Coach John Calipari has become the poster boy for “One and Done” players who pass through one year of college before heading off to the pros. However, my affection for the Wildcats does not diminish my dislike of the rule. But we’ll talk about that in a minute.
A look at the top seeds in the tournament show the value of having a roster that includes a significant influence of upperclassmen. The overall No. 1 seed Florida Gators are the best example of a school who has benefited by players staying in school. Leading scorer Casey Prather, center Patric Young, point guard Scottie Wilbekin and enforcer Will Yeguette all had three letters coming into the season and might leave with a national championship. I don’t know how Coach Billy Donovan does it, but this is not the first time he has convinced his players that college is a lot more fun than the pros. In 2006, his Gators, led by current Bulls star Joakim Noah, won the NCAA title and then decided they’d had so much fun, let’s do it again, which they did. Most of the starters returned to win a second straight title in 2007.
But other teams also have the senior influence. Undefeated Wichita State, the No. 1 seed in the Mideast Region, is led in scoring by senior Cleanthony Early and gets ample time off the bench from 6-9 enforcer Kadeem Coleby, a transfer from Louisiana Lafayette. Virginia, the top seed in the East, beat Duke in the ACC finals thanks to senior Joe Harris’ 15 points. The strongest candidate for national player of the year is Senior Greg McDermott, who averages nearly 27 points a game for Creighton and whom Sports Illustrated suggests is the second coming of Larry Bird. Michigan State has overcome a mid-season slump to win the Big Ten tournament behind seniors Adreian Payne and Keith Appling. Other seniors such as Russ Smith of Louisville and DeAndre Kane of Iowa St. led their teams and will get their just due over the next three weeks. There are other seniors who deserve similar recognition.
Then we look back at the teams who were ranked 1-2-3 in the most recent recruiting class, and, collectively, they lost 27 games. Kentucky with five true freshmen starters, has struggled all season, although the SEC tournament showed a glimpse of what Big Blue Nation was hoping for. Kansas, with Andrew Wiggins, the odds-on favorite to be the top pick in the NBA draft, struggled most of the season and lost nine games. Their No. 2 seed in the tournament is a joke and a slap at teams like Louisville, at No. 4 seed, who might be playing the best basketball in the country. Duke, led by freshman sensation Jabari Parker, wound up with a No. 3 seed despite losing eight games.
Those teams would give a lot to have their freshmen return for at least one more season, which is a much-discussed possibility. Voices within the NCAA say it’s up to the NBA, and the NBA says it’s up to the union, which must agree to such a proposal. But after seeing so many college flashes who clearly are not ready for the big time, who can logically make an argument against a two-year or an age 20 rule that would give these young players at least one more year of maturity?
We will discuss the issue at length in another column, but at least for this week, let’s root for the seniors. Most of them will not go on to long pro careers while their young teammates make zillions. Sadly, with most of the hype going to the one-and-dones, the seniors have become the true underdogs in college basketball.