Welcome back to the Elite Eight, Wildcats. We didn't expect you here, but then again, perhaps we should have.
You would think, after a huge win like the one the Big Blue Nation just witnessed against the Ohio St. Buckeyes, that I could not wait to write the postmortem. You'd think that I would have all kinds of things to say. Honestly, I must confess that I was completely unprepared to write an article about a victory. I thought that UK would play the Buckeyes tough, but I had no idea that they would hold them to 32% from the field, something that no team has ever even approached against this outstanding OSU team.
I must say a heartfelt congratulations to the Ohio St. Buckeyes. They were fantastic, as they have been all year. They ran, as every team must in the NCAA tournament, into a prepared, determined, and skilled basketball team. This was no mystery to the Buckeyes, they perfectly well knew that UK would be among the most serious and difficult challenges of the year, fan bravado notwithstanding. Thad Matta is an amazing basketball coach, and he was coaching an amazing basketball team. He was not for a moment thinking that this game would be anything other than it was, he was just expecting to find a way to win -- and he nearly did. William Buford got a terrific look at the end, and all of us have seen that shot go down year after year in the tournament. Fortunately for Kentucky, this one did not.
For Kentucky, this was the single best defensive display I have seen out of a Kentucky team since 2003. They were up against a team that was unquestionably the best shooting team in college basketball, had the best big man in the college game, and had no less than four 3-point shooters at or better than 40% from the arc for the year. That's a team that a rational man would pick to win every time against a team like Kentucky. But basketball is not played on paper, it is played on the court, and on the court, Kentucky had weapons, some of them not really known to the general public.The first weapon was Josh Harrellson. Harrellson was one of the few big men in college basketball who outmassed Jared Sullinger. Sullinger found, to his woe, that Harrellson was also a very good defender, and the best pick-and-roll center in the college game. Never mind, for now, how Harrellson got there -- he did, and tonight, he fought the best big man in the college game to a draw. OSU never, in their wildest nightmares, actually believed that could happen.
The second weapon was DeAndre Liggins. Now, make no mistake -- people know about Liggins. He is no mystery to Thad Matta, I assure you. Matta would have warned his charges at length about what Liggins brings, especially defensively. But what Matta did not expect was that Calipari would put Liggins on Craft rather than Diebler. The logical thing to do would be to use a defensive stopper to hold down an offensive juggernaut. But Calipari, in a very savvy move, decided that if you cut off the head, the body will die. Liggins didn't quite get that job done, but he did enough.
But Liggins wasn't done there. He also managed an amazing 15 points and 3 blocks. He was otherworldly, a goblin out of a nightmare. He did all the things that the opponent hates, including attacking them psychologically. Matta knew it, but he couldn't prepare the team (nobody could) for the reality of DeAndre Liggins. Liggins is simply a horror for the opponent, and he demonstrated all of that tonight.
There is no describing Brandon Knight. He struggled all night against the stellar defense of Aaron Craft, but in the end, he demonstrated to Craft why he is considered a first round draft pick and Craft is not. That is not meant as disrespect to Aaron Craft, I have no doubt that he will play in the Association one day. But not before Brandon Knight.
There are so many people deserving of the game ball, I won't even attempt to offer it to a player. Instead, I will award the game ball to the entire team, because this was the absolute most complete team effort I have seen in eight years, since the mighty Suffocats. This defense, and I mean by every player, was unquestionably the most dominant played in the tournament, considering the quality of the competition, in many, many years.
In closing, Wildcat fans, this mighty effort earns us the right to try to avenge a loss earlier this year against the North Carolina Tar Heels, and if you think this was a war (and it was), wait until Sunday. That will be a major, no holds barred, galactically significant conflict between two mighty programs who have 12 NCAA championships between them. That this game should occur in a regional final and not in the national championship is an unadulterated tragedy, but is nonetheless meaningful for it.
Are you ready, Wildcats fans? We were just here last year. Are you ready to go further? I am. Not so sure about my heart.