A Game Too Far

TONY VANETTI: Congratulations, Matt. National Championship game came up a little short in what I can describe as a bizarre, but successful season for Kentucky.

MATT JONES: Yeah, definitely. It was a heck of a year and a heck of a ride. I would say the four games between Wichita State and Wisconsin are probably the most exciting four-game postseason run Kentucky maybe has ever had. It was unbelievable. It also showcases, Tony, how random the NCAA tournament is. I would argue all four teams Kentucky beat are better than the one they lost to. But that’s just the way a tournament can be. I don’t even think UConn’s good, and yet they somehow stole a National Championship, their fourth in 15 years.

VANETTI: That’s exactly the words I used last week on my show. People were saying “how can you say Kentucky is going to run UConn off the floor?” I said “It’s because they’ve already beaten four teams that can beat UConn,” and somehow UConn…I guess their quickness just got to you in the end.

JONES: You know, I’ve said this to you before: when you’re not a dominant team, the matchups matter. And Louisville last year was kind of a dominant team, and Kentucky in 2012 was a dominant team. But when there’s not one, a lot of it is about who you play and when you play them. Remember, UConn almost lost to St. Joe’s in the first round. Probably should’ve lost, and instead, they win the title. The quick guards hurt Kentucky. I also think Kentucky was really nervous. I mean really nervous. I’ve never seen them like that. In the pre-game warmups, they’re usually so loose and having fun, and they just looked different. People talk about youth mattering in games, and I don’t think it does at the end. Kentucky beat Louisville and Michigan, all of these experienced teams at the end. But where it might end, Tony, is at the beginning of a big game because I think they were really tight, really nervous and they were down 30-15 before they were really where they wanted to be.

VANETTI: Most fan bases would look at the year Kentucky just had and be overjoyed. Not overjoyed, but pretty darn happy. But again, you guys aren’t just any fan base. You’re a little high maintenance. But the 11 loss total and the up-and-down season that you had – where do you think the fan base is today?

JONES: I think they’re pretty happy. There will be people from the outside who just want to stir things up (ahem, like Tony Vanetti), who will say they’re not happy. But they’re happy. Again, if you said “Well, you lost 11 games,” they wouldn’t have been thrilled with that. But the run they made, how they beat the teams, beating Louisville is a big part of that. You get a win over your rival in the NCAA tournament and people are very happy. Kentucky’s played basketball – the NCAA tournament era – for 75 years. Okay, there’s been 75 NCAA tournaments they’ve covered. They won eight. All right, unless you just believe the other 67 years are failures, then the next best group are the runners-up. They have five runners-up. Now, this if their fifth runner-up. That’s pretty good, so I think fans are very happy.

VANETTI: Well, that’s what your fan base says, that championships only matter. You all say that that’s not us.

JONES: No, when you say “your fan base,” you’re talking to the idiots that call your show to get you riled up. If anybody says that championships are all that matter, those people need to be thrown in the ocean, okay?

VANETTI: Calipari says that.

JONES: Calipari said “we are college basketball.” That’s a different quote. I agree with that one. But no, he has never said that championships are all that matter. What matters is having good regular seasons or good postseasons. I don’t think Kentucky had a good regular season, but they had a great postseason run. I wish if they were gonna lose, they’d have lost to someone who I thought was decent. Because I still think UConn is good. But, they didn’t.

VANETTI: They were good enough to run Florida by 10 and get you guys in the championship game.

JONES: Tony, I mean, look at that team. I will say they have really good defense and maybe three guys who may play in the NBA. So that’s a pretty good recipe. But the rest of those guys are awful.

VANETTI: So did the freshman choke a little bit then?

JONES: I don’t think they choked, but I do think they were nervous. You can’t look at this team and say they were choking. Aaron Harrison hit three of the most clutch shots in UK history. But I do think they were nervous at the beginning, and then in the second half they had a couple of chances to take the lead, and if they had it might have been a different game. Aaron [Harrison] missed an open three, Poythress got called for what I thought was a questionable charge. But if they took either of those leads, it’s a different game. The key moment is when they were down one, Harrison misses the three and then they make back-to-back threes to go up seven.

VANETTI: OK, so the decision now is who goes to the NBA – and does that include your coach?

JONES: Yeah, I don’t think Cal is going to the NBA. I don’t know what Rex Chapman was doing. And I like Rex Chapman, but that was an ill-timed Tweet.

VANETTI: I’ve got to agree that it was bush league. This was the biggest moment, the moment that Kentucky fans live for: national championship night. And 45 minutes before tip-off, you get a Tweet from some guys saying that their coach is leaving. I think that’s awful for y’all.

JONES: And listen, I really do like Rex, but that’s terrible timing, especially when he’s on the fan broadcast, so everyone thinks that he must know what he’s talking about. And then he says it’s a done deal and now he says that he doesn’t think it’s going to happen. Well, what changed? I’m disappointed in it. I don’t think it mattered to the game because I don’t think the players or the coach knew about it. I think Cal probably knows about it now and is probably not too happy and it did probably take something away for all the fans.

I think Cal stays and I think we’ll probably lose Willie (Cauley-Stein), Julius (Randle) and James Young. I think the rest of the guys come back. We’ll just have to wait for the Harrison twins, as they’re the ones we don’t know, and honestly, I think it’s still up in the air.

VANETTI: Well, I know how much it means to you, so I feel for you, but other than that I couldn’t be happier. Sorry about your runner-up.

JONES: Well look, I’m glad you got some joy out of this because no matter what, we’ll still be able to say there was a Sweet Sixteen game where we played, we won and you all went home and cried. And most of your players will get to watch our players play in the NBA next year.

VANETTI: I will watch them in that polo shirt of the last national championship won in this state in the NBA.

JONES: Exactly, live in the past all you want.

VANETTI: Classic. A UK guy talking about living in the past.

Photos by VICTORIA GRAFF | Contributing Photographer