Watching the University of Kentucky basketball team thoroughly dismantle, dismember, and just generally "dis" the Wake Forest Demon Deacons 90-60 Saturday night, I was taken back. Transported, via my memory bank, to March of 1996. Seeing this inexperienced (Kansas was experienced, right?), yet bewilderingly talented group of Wildcats pilfer the spirit and will of an opponent, an NCAA Tournament opponent no less, flooded my mind with thoughts of Tony Delk, Antoine Walker, Ron Mercer, Derek Anderson, Walter McCarty and the rest of the '96 national title 'Cats. And although the 1996 championship team was longer in the tooth than the 2010 'Cats, the domination remains the same.
UK 110, San Jose State 72, and UK 84, Virginia Tech 60 ... sound eerily familiar? Kentucky won their first two 1996 NCAA Tournament games by an average margin of 31 points; The 2010 edition of the 'Cats have jitter-bugged their initial two Big Dance foes by an average of 29.5 points per game. The 1996 'Cats averaged 97 points per game through their first two tourney tilts, and the '10 'Cats have responded to the challenge by averaging 95 points per game. UK's first two tourney opponents in '96 averaged 66 points per game, while the 2010 'Cats have held their opposition to 65.5 points per game.
Once again, cue the "Jaws" soundtrack ... duh dunt, duh dunt ... cue the ominously over-sized dorsal fin, effortlessly gliding toward the soon-to-be capsized cutter ...
Not unlike man-eater versus man, it's domination to the extent of being unfair. It's what UK fans pine for, it's what UK fans cherish, it's what allows UK fans to effortlessly float to work on March Monday mornings, rendering the rat race an afterthought. Instead of big blue minds being occupied with seemingly meager paychecks, spousal shortcomings, children on the verge of being anarchists, and the state of the economy, they are delightfully pressing the replay button on UK's two rounds of utter evisceration:
- Field Goal % -- Kentucky: 69 - 123 (56.1%); Opponents: 44 - 128 (34.4%).
- Three-point field goal % -- Kentucky: 22 - 54 (40.7%); Opponents: 6 - 32 (18.8%).
- Two-point field goal % -- Kentucky: 47 - 69 (68.1%); Opponents: 38 - 96 (39.6%).
- Points off Turnovers -- Kentucky: 28; Opponents: 18.
- Points in the Paint -- Kentucky: 90; Opponents: 62.
- Fast Break Points -- Kentucky: 41; Opponents: 30.
Has it been one or two 'Cats that have led the surge? No. It's been the deadly combination of all five starters, as well as major contributions from those who spend more time watching than playing:
- John Wall -- 31 points on 10 of 16 shooting (6-10 threes), and 18 assists.
- Eric Bledsoe -- 42 points on 15 of 20 shooting (9-12 threes), six assists, and six steals.
- DeMarcus Cousins -- 24 points on 10 of 12 shooting, 16 rebounds, five assists, and five blocks.
- Patrick Patterson -- 26 points on 11 of 16 shooting, nine rebounds, and three blocks.
- Darius Miller -- 25 points on 8 of 14 shooting, 10 rebounds, and zero turnovers.
- DeAndre Liggins -- Seven assists and zero turnovers in 44 minutes.
- Daniel Orton -- 14 points on 6 of 8 shooting, seven rebounds, and four blocks in 26 minutes.
- Perry Stevenson -- Six rebounds and three blocks in 20 minutes.
Tremendous individual numbers to be sure: All five starters averaging double-figures, all five starters making well over 50.0% of their field goal attempts, and all 13 players performing as a unit -- As a team, UK has handed out 48 assists on 69 made field goals, an impressive 69.6% assist rate.
Imploring ones uber-talented performers to play as a team is often the fiercest challenge facing a coach lucky enough to boast multiple superstars, but John Calipari has proved himself worthy of the tag, "Salesman of the Year." Calipari has sold his team on ... What's good for the team is good for me; Calipari has sold his team on victories being more important than individual achievement; and Calipari has sold his team on giving up individual glory, for the glorification of the team ... Sound eerily familiar? Rick Pitino, as coach of the '96 'Cats, also perpetrated a "Zig" Ziglar-like sales pitch, convincing his overly talented charges to willingly sacrifice statistics and individual glory, for the good of the team.
The other, just as telling aspect of this team's manifestation of their potential, can be found in their defense. And make no mistake, the suffocating defense the 'Cats have played thus far in the NCAA Tournament has been the primary factor that has propelled UK toward two wide-margin victories. Defense, though, is most often a place for youth-oriented teams to rest, not excel. Because, youth doesn't understand disruptive defense starts offense ... youth doesn't understand making an opponent work for a shot, will, in the final minutes of the contest, make the bad guys' legs tired and their shots short. What this Kentucky team understands and embraces is defense starts the devastating break, which results in the defense prematurely ending the (no) contest.
So what is to be made of UK's quick-silver start to the 2010 national title tournament? Afterall, the 'Cats have dispatched two much lower seeds, one a fifth place finisher in the Atlantic Sun Conference. The other, a middle of the pack team out of a less-than-beastly ACC.
I say, it mattered not who the 'Cats were playing. Their execution on both ends of the floor, including incredibly accurate shot-making, and sticky man-to-man D, has Kentucky finally fulfilling the promise that leads to hanging banners. And no, it's not a coincidence that the emergence of the new and improved Killer 'Cats has coincided with the start of the NCAA Tournament. As many opined throughout the SEC season, the keep-it-close 'Cats were waiting on the season that matters most to unveil their full complement of abilities. And as much as I disdain a team cruising, that may be exactly what this team did over the last half of the SEC slate. Which is what led many to espouse that a team filled with such youth was incapable of "putting teams away," and still others went so far as to theorize the missing killer-instinct would eventually spell doom for UK's brigade of neophytes.
What this team is now doing, though, is playing with the same intensity and focus, not for 15 or 20 minutes, but for the full 40. All season the 'Cats have intermittently displayed the ability to humiliate an opponent, letting off the gas just as the threshold of invincibility was becoming clearly attainable. But no more.
Now the goal is clearly defined and understood -- Win, and leave nothing to chance. No heartbreaking game winning three-pointers for an opponent overmatched, no last second zebra interference, no final minute meltdown. Leave the opponent wanting ... wanting the game to end.
Does Kentucky's first two tournament games foreshadow deja vu all over again? Will that eerily familiar feeling continue? Ivy League representative, the Big Red of Cornell, will be the first to find out.
Thanks for reading, and Go, Go 'Cats!