Darius Miller and Brandon Knight have learned through harsh experience what it takes to win.
For the majority of the 2010-2011 Kentucky basketball season, the Wildcats' inability to finish off opponents, or finish games strong, was an unfortunate fact bemoaned by not only the Big Blue Nation, but also by coach John Calipari and the players involved in the late-game collapses. In the many articles, posts, and discussions concerning UK's lack of end-game execution, the consensus among Blue backers was that the team's relative youth was the culprit responsible for the end-game failures. The line of thought went something like this: Hopefully, as the team gains experience, the final minute[s] miscues most likely will dissipate into a fine mist, taking a back seat to newly found Wildcat confidence, resulting in end-game competence.
Almost like magic, it was to be. Although later than most would like -- including the coach and players -- the 'Cats, seemingly overnight, began to finish off opponents and win games which before they lost. The two-point losses to North Carolina, Alabama, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, and Florida; the one-point loss to Arkansas; the four-point loss to Vanderbilt, and the seven-point loss to Georgia all are to be looked at now as growing pains suffered by a team bound to discover the formula for success.
Unlike last season's 'Cats, who seldom found themselves on the losing end of any game, this year's team has had teachable moments sprinkled throughout an up-and-down season. And those "teachable moments" are primarily responsible for the success UK has enjoyed in this season's NCAA Tournament. Take for example Kentucky's two-point first round win over Princeton ...
Good Knight (Sweet Prince-ton)
Although UK's freshman point guard Brandon Knight, up to the final play of the game, had experienced a bad shooting night (0-7 from the floor), when the final play called by Calipari was blown up by the sticky Princeton defense, Knight still had the confidence to take the ball to the rim, as if to say, "I'm winning this game, right now!" And that is exactly what he did with his driving layup through a seam politely provided by the Tigers.
Without Knight having learned from his past failures in close game situations, he might not have opted to win the game himself. But through Knight's (freshman related) setbacks, which gave the coaching staff the opportunity to teach -- giving the player an opportunity to succeed -- Knight grew stronger and more confident as a team leader. The sight of Knight taking the ball strongly to the hole was truly the personification of winning through losing.
West Virginia Volume 2: Second Game Better than the First
Best of all, though, and perhaps the ultimate testament to Kentucky's growth as a team, was the second half comeback extraordinaire the 'Cats perpetrated in their 71-63 second round win over West Virginia. Last year, in UK's Elite Eight loss to the Mountaineers, Kentucky was as cold as Eskimo's toes from the outside, which in turn adversely effected UK's defense, which was the ultimate cause for the loss -- Like a golfer hitting a bad shot, then another, then another, UK allowed their offensive woes to bleed over into their normally solid defense. Instead of buckling down on the defensive end, denying WVU the chance to win, the 'Cats played soft defensively, as they continued to force shot after shot, building a spacious brick home with a roomy two-car garage along the way.
That team, as talented as they were, had not learned through hardship that winning games depended not on their offensive acumen, or their ability to make long-range shots, but rather on their defensive execution, and calm, intelligent play. They panicked (as young teams are wont to do), and they lost, sending home a team talented enough to make the Final Four. But because of their lack of failure in close games -- which would have given the coaching staff the chance to teach their young team using the young 'Cats' ineptitude as a coaching tool -- they were left with nothing in the tank as the 'Neers rolled to victory.
As fate would have it -- and with a big thanks to the NCAA Selection Committee -- the 2011 NCAA tourney saw the 'Cats once again facing a West Virginia squad well-suited to send the 'Cats home early. And those fears of an early exit seemingly came to fruition in a nightmarish final seven-minutes of the first half. A final seven which saw the 'Cats precipitously slide from up 26-19 (courtesy of the inspired, intense play of Brandon Knight), to down 41-33 thanks to some bad luck, a questionable call, a bit of hot-shooting by WVU (48.3% in the 1st half), and less-than-stellar Big Blue execution (read: UK's four turnovers in the final seven).
This year, though, when adversity came knocking, instead of the 'Cats going into full-blown panic mode, they buttoned-up the defense (33.3% 2nd half WVU shooting), hit the glass (eight offensive rebounds on sixteen UK misses), and won the game in decidedly UK fashion; surviving and advancing.
Would the 'Cats have pulled out the win without the failures of the past? Would the 'Cats have survived and advanced without the previous "inexplicable" losses? Fortune 500 CEO's and (ultimately) successful entrepreneurs are the first to say that failure is a necessary part of succeeding ... if one learns from the failure. But make no mistake, many times there first has to be failure, or nothing will be gained, because no moments which to teach will be available. This year's Wildcat team, through their failures and shortcomings, found the confidence and calm demeanor which it takes to win tough ball games, in tough environments.
Friday Night Fight
With the 'Cats traveling to Newark, NJ for their Sweet 16 match-up with the big, bad, No. 1 ranked Ohio State Buckeyes Friday night, looming large in the minds of the UK faithful is the question, "Is Kentucky good enough to survive and advance?" But the question should instead be, "Are the 'Cats seasoned enough to survive and advance?" The requisite UK talent is present, the will to win is present, and the knowledge that they are capable of overcoming adversity is present. It's now up to the players to execute that which they have learned over the preceding months of SEC battles ... it's all about defense, it's all about playing with a calm demeanor, and it's all about knowing no game is over until the final horn blows, regardless of how bad the contest is trending. Because yes, the 'Cats will face adversity Friday night.
In fact, I wager both teams will face adversity Friday night, and the team best equipped to deal with that adversity might very well be the team that continues to (Big) Dance. And because of UK's strength gained through failure, because Kentucky has been forged by the fire of losing, the 'Cats certainly have a fighters chance of surviving and advancing ... and really, what more could anyone ask for?
Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!