Somtimes, you say things that you end up regretting. In the game preview, I said the following:
But unlike most teams, this UK team does not need external motivation. They want to win every game in complete isolation, regardless of what the downstream implications are, as much or more than any team in the country. This team is relentless in its insatiable appetite for victory, and don't seem to give the slightest heed to the NCAA Selection Committee or seeding process. To the Wildcats, basketball excellence is the only end worth pursuing.
Well, that was wrong. This young, smallish LSU Tigers team came in and like to have made monkeys of both the Kentucky Wildcats and me in my hubris. We now know that, despite that late run in the regular season where Kentucky looked indomitable, they are capable of coming out flat and staying listless throughout an entire game.
But it is unfair to our worthy opponents to suggest that this near-upset happened because Kentucky wasn't ready -- UK has been able to play poorly and get through games like this before. But LSU was having none of it. Instead, the Tigers took it right to Kentucky and showed that despite their youth and lack of size, in their collective chests beats the heart of the big cat for which the team is nicknamed.
Anthony Hickey, the diminutive LSU freshman guard from Christian County High School, showed everyone why he was named Kentucky's Mr. Basketball last year by utterly dominating Marquis Teague, a guard ranked so much higher than him coming out of high school you'd need a radio telescope to see one from the other. Hickey played with a chip on his shoulder, as if to show John Calipari what he missed by not recruiting him, and I think that point was made pretty well.
But it wasn't just Hickey, it was Andre Stringer, Johnny O`Bryant III, Storm Warren -- all the Tigers came to play today, and LSU fans should be extremely proud of this team. They took Kentucky right to the brink of elimination, and they did it the right way -- with heart, physical determination, and superior effort.
In a way, it's too bad LSU didn't win, because they were clearly the more determined and motivated team, and frankly, they absolutely deserved the upset. Unfortunately for them and fortunately for the Wildcats, there is that whole "talent" thing, and playing hard simply cannot overcome a talent gap as vast as the one enjoyed by Kentucky over LSU. In the end, talent won. But Kentucky surely should know now, in case they didn't before, that much better teams than the Tigers lay in wait down the road, and if those teams outplay Kentucky by the margin LSU outplayed them today, whether by superior effort by them or inferior effort by Kentucky, the Wildcats will be going home early.
I know this sounds a bit negative, but I do have to be honest -- fandom isn't all about "rah rah," and sometimes the team just disappoints. This was one of those times. Perhaps Coach Cal deserves some of the blame, as several people suggested in the game thread, for discounting the SEC tournament so publicly, and giving everyone the impression that Kentucky just didn't want to be here. Perhaps that attitude wore off on his players just a bit, or gave them an excuse to take a casual attitude, and it is reasonable to expect that might be the case.
Despite the vast number of negatives I could cite in this game, there were some positives. Terrence Jones played well, as did Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Anthony Davis did some very good things that only he can do, but he also turned the ball over a bunch of times. Doron Lamb also had great difficulty handling LSU's quick guards, and Darius Miller was simply missing in action for most of the game. Kyle Wiltjer simply didn't handle the physicality at all, and Calipari just couldn't play him.
I can't really say enough about Terrence Jones, he really did a lot of good things out there. Of all the Wildcats today, he played the best, with MKG not far behind. It's really great to see Jones play with that much passion, and in fact, he looked like MKG's bigger brother out there, hustling and defending, making big shots and getting big rebounds.
Anthony Davis also deserves more than a line of praise. By dint of his remarkable, prodigious talent, he had an unbelievable impact on this game. He got into LSU's heads by rejecting or affecting shot after shot, and by making play after play in the second half. In the first, he was mostly ineffective offensively and was saddled with two fouls which severely hampered his minutes early in the game. In the second, he was pretty much his old self.
Finally, despite several opportunities to give up on the game, the Wildcats, at least enough of them, declined that opportunity and finished the game the right way. Doron Lamb arguably deserves more credit than I gave him, but I was not enamored of his defense or his body language, and he played a little too "cool" for my taste. In fairness, though, he did some good things to go with the bad, and made a couple of critical plays down the stretch.
Normally, I award a game ball to the Wildcat who plays best, but in this game, I think LSU is the only truly deserving actor. They played so hard that if I'd been a neutral fan, I would have surely wound up rooting for them. Congratulations to the Tigers on a great game, and I hope they return the majority of their talent. Next year or the year after could be special for them. Much respect to the Bayou Bengals for their outstanding effort, I just wish their fans would have deigned to show up and cheer for them. Too much to ask of an SEC football school, I suppose.