BBN 38-1: A Historic Run

SIX_5794Some day, after the sting of pain subsides, we’ll be able to look back on this season and appreciate what a special journey it was, with a special group of athletes.

But you don’t want to read that now. And, frankly, I don’t want to write it. The disappointment is still too palpable. Just rip the bandage off.

When I came out my front door on Friday morning, after a downpour that had left four inches of water in my basement, the pole holding my UK flag had snapped in the wind. The blue and white banner was sitting in a puddle of dirty rainwater.

“This is not a good omen!”

NCAA BASKETBALL: APR 04 Div I Men's Championship - Final Four - Wisconsin v KentuckyAnd, 36 hours later, I was right – if you believe in omens. What else could it have been? Surely not a poor game plan. Surely not sloppy execution. Surely not some peculiar decision-making in the flow of the game. Surely not a blown shot clock call.

This was 38-0 Kentucky, Number One of all the number ones. They don’t have poor game plans or sloppy execution.

It’s always tempting, in a 40-minute game, to focus on one play or call or sequence. Risky too, because, sports plays out in a continuum, so what happens in the first five minutes will affect what happens in the last five seconds.

But to most people, the key point in the game came after UK had put on one of its patented second-half runs. Down by eight, 52-44, at the 14:46 mark, the Cats went on an eight-minute run, outscoring Wisconsin 16-4, to lead by four.

KarlWe’d seen it all season, the defensive lockdowns, the offensive aggressiveness. Wisconsin was reeling. Karl-Anthony Towns was exercising his will, Anthony Davis-style. Call him “Towns the Tank.” He was turning the other guy into a Tonka toy.

And then the Cats had three consecutive shot clock violations, cautiously trying to finesse the ball movement and work the game time instead of going right at Wisconsin. The push-push-push offense – the one that all season produced so many layups and a foul, so many ball reversals for the open three, so many alley oops – was suddenly replaced by dribble-dribble-dribble, the one that produces standing around and indecision.

Strange. I don’t know if that was the message from the bench or Andrew Harrison freelancing, but it was disastrous. In a game where the margin for error was minuscule the normally poised Cats, who all season have gobbled up the second half pressure, simply folded.

That allowed Wisconsin to come back on some good three-point shooting. Which raises another question for me: Where was our perimeter offense? We took five 3-point shots, they took 17.

NCAA BASKETBALL: APR 04 Div I Men's Championship - Final Four - Wisconsin v KentuckyWe have three-point shooters, too. Devin Booker is one of the best. But he took just six shots, and zero 3s!

Over the next two minutes, which was really the deciding stretch – the last 60 seconds of fouling to try stopping the clock and getting the ball back didn’t really count – Kentucky did not score.

Another quibble – Frank Kaminsky had clearly decided that the way to avoid foul trouble was not to play defense. It seemed Kentucky could have exploited that more. Towns made seven of 11 shots. This might have been a chance for another 10 post-ups from him. But during that critical portion of the game, after Wisconsin had fought back to a 60-60 tie, Towns did not take another shot.

And that gets me to the Wisconsin basket that tied the score, a put-back by Nigel Hayes with 2:35 left in the game. While I generally subscribe to the notion that blaming the refs is a loser’s refuge, in how many more sports is Kentucky going to be destroyed by officials’ inability to see a clock hit 0:00? You remember it happened against Florida in overtime during the football season, but this one had far greater consequences. And basketball is a much more time-focused activity. The ball, the basket, the clock, they’re all pretty much in one field of vision. It doesn’t seem all that difficult for an NCAA tournament-level referee to coordinate the three. Not like it’s the first time he’s ever been in that situation.

Willie blockCould it have been fatigue that derailed Kentucky at the end? The “platoon system” and the deep bench were supposed to nullify that. At the end of games, Kentucky was presumed to be the team with the fresh legs.

Of course, the platoon had become as expired as that Christmas eggnog you just found in the back of your fridge. Dakari Johnson played eight minutes, Marcus Lee played five minutes, against Wisconsin. Lee was always going to be a marginal part of this squad, a tremendous athlete with still-developing basketball skills.

But we saw Dakari shrink and disappear before our eyes as the season went on. If all the bigs do go on to the NBA (and I’m still not willing to concede that point), he would be well-advised to come back and work on his game. However, after all his sacrifice and frustration, all the pre-season buildup about the new and improved Dakari, I wouldn’t be surprised if he were feeling like: “I’m outta here” right about now.

Finally, you just knew, back in December, that there would come that time when we’d need Alex Poythress and he wouldn’t be able to answer. Poythress could have been that wide set of shoulders to keep Wisconsin off the boards, out of the lane, away from the baseline. Sadly, that time finally came.

another shot clock violationI hated having to write this one, after such an incredible winter. But ultimately, I’m not saddest for me or for you or Big Blue Nation, I’m saddest for those players. They’re still very young men, most of them more kids than men, playing with so much joy under so much pressure. They’re about to face some adult decisions.

Some of them could become fabulously wealthy by the fall. But the NBA is a mostly joyless grind. Karl-Anthony Towns will see how quickly his “band of brothers” mentality dissipates. It’s a job, and a high-stakes one, too. They’ll be amazingly rewarded, but much will be expected of them. It’s a cold world away from Wildcat Lodge.

Ask Doron Lamb or Archie Goodwin about how the dream of playing in Madison Square Garden turns into a February night on a bus from Fort Wayne to Grand Rapids.

Some may yet come back for another season. And I think many should. I’ll talk about that in a future column. But first, they’re going to have to go to sleep night after night and replay in their minds the rebound that slipped away, the ball that bounced out of bounds, the foul call they insist was not a foul.

Sort of like the tossing and turning many of us have been doing just after the lights go out these last few nights, where we see a ref blow his whistle, wave off the basket and shout, “too late, shot clock violation, Kentucky ball.” But just a dream. VT

Photos by Adam Creech & Victoria Graff, Contributing Photographers