Well, Wildcats fans, I have some good news and bad news. The bad news is that we were defeated as the #1 seed in the tournament by the #8 seed in the first game of the NIT. This is probably the low point at Kentucky since … well, since probation. Even Billy Gillspie’s last team won two games in the NIT.
Congratulations to the Robert Morris Colonials, they played great. They worked very hard, shot the ball from everywhere, and physically dominated the Wildcats during many possessions. It was, as it has been all year, bold, experienced players against tentative, nervous freshmen and even sophomores infected with their self-doubt. But don’t let that deceive you into thinking that the Wildcats just gave this up – the Colonials took it from them. I know it hurts, Wildcats fans, but if we can win with dignity, we can lose the same way.
I’m not going into a long postmortem on the season, I’ll save that for later after I have time to gather my thoughts. I’ll constrain my comments to the instant contest, and try to help make sense of it.
This was a game of momentum, big swings both ways. It’s pretty amazing how the Wildcats came back from multiple double-digit deficits to tie the game at the end. The reason Kentucky lost, as has been the case so often, is offensive execution and defensive errors.
Offense first. Offensively, Kentucky looked like they were shod in lead. Robert Morris, understanding the scouting report, pressed Kentucky’s lilly-soft guards and stayed up in their faces all game long. As has been the case all year Kentucky struggled to make the simple play. Willie Cauley-Stein repeatedly tried to make spectacular plays, and somewhat unusually for him, looked very much out of his depth, and more like the four-star he was out of high school than the suddenly-trendy choice as a lottery pick by some of the more potential-driven NBA draft sites.
In addition, Kyle Wiltjer was a complete non-entity. Who could have imagined the confident offensive player we saw early in the year could come to such a pass. I find myself wondering what is next for him, when earlier in they year it seemed a foregone conclusion he would be back, better and stronger, next year. Now, I find myself wondering.
I could be critical of Ryan Harrow and Alex Poythress, but what’s the point? These guys lost their confidence some time ago, and you can’t really regain it in-season in most cases as a younger player. They played exactly how I expected them to play, which is to say, not very well.
Jarrod Polson was great in this game, as was Archie Goodwin. Both those worthies showed the competitive fire that wins championships, but both are flawed in their own way, and in any case, they are not enough to win the game by themselves.
I also thought Jon Hood deserved a mention. He played well, and did many good things. He also made mistakes, but as little as he played this year, I think you’d have to say that he was a much bigger help than hurt.
Julius Mays tried, but as a facilitator rather than a scorer, and didn’t really play well. He shot the ball poorly from the perimeter, and once again, we see his weakness as a player due to a lack of athleticism and length. He also struggled to make the simple play, similar to WCS.
Defensively, the Wildcats played hard, but made all the same mistakes they have made all year – getting hung on screens, leaving their feet against smaller players, failing to trust their teammate when he got beat. We saw two Wildcats guarding one guy over and over as they failed to communicate, as they have all year. It was nothing new, and I really didn’t expect anything but what we got.
What I did like was that, for the first time in several games, the Wildcats responded to the challenge. They came up short mainly because the Colonials executed much better down the stretch, and greater size and athleticism can only overcome so much. Their response was welcome, if predictably inadequate in the end.
I know that many of you are both happy and near madness over this game – happy this painful season is finally over, and near madness on such an ignominious, if very narrow defeat. This is the second straight game in which Kentucky has failed to reach 60 points, and my comparison of Robert Morris with Vanderbilt seems remarkably apt if only for that.
We have a lot to look forward to next year, and not a few recriminations from this year, as is inevitable when a blueblood team fails spectacularly to achieve even the most pedestrian of expectations. Frankly, putting UK as a #1 seed in this tournament seemed farcical to me, but I suppose, in the end, the NCAA allowed the delicious possibility of a 1-8 upset to overwhelm their reason.
Of course they knew Kentucky would wind up playing in Pittsburgh, having already appropriated Rupp Arena for the NCAA Tournament, and if I were a betting man, I would bet they had all kinds of financial fun at the expense of our sanity. All the more reason to hate them, but hey – nobody like them anyway, so why not? Besides, we could have always done something that ought to be expected of a Kentucky team against a tiny school like RMU – win. Alas, too much to ask, it seems – this year, anyway.
That’s about all I have, or at least, all I am capable of right now. Remember that this community has rules, and I ask you kindly to observe them no matter how angry you may be. There are other places where you can vent if you must, so please don’t inflict frustration and invective on your brothers and sisters in Blue. Let’s not make this season even more miserable than it already is.
One season ends, another begins. So it is in Kentucky, as it has always been. Let’s take our licks, lick our wounds, show the heart and class that we demand from our players, and get ready for NCAA championship #9 next year.