Well, Wildcats fans, this was a bummer. Make no mistake, this team didn’t look to anyone like an NCAA team tonight, and we saw, as we have seen so many times this season, a group of young men trying to play a game that they seem to be completely unfamiliar with, at least at the Division I level.
My mind’s eye could see sophisticated fans, like so many in the Big Blue Nation, screaming at their televisions during the game, or grasping their hair (for those who actually still have some) and tugging at it, inventing new curses – not at the team, but at the product of their efforts. It was bad basketball, and with that, I flatter their labor unmercifully. Calling it anything else would be dishonest, and my capacity for BS’ing myself is all used up.
Congratulations to Georgia for winning the game. Saying that the Bulldogs played well would also be dishonest. Georgia shot 36.5% from the floor (but to be fair, 46.7% from three so their eFG% will be acceptable if not great), and they made 27-34 free throws for 79.4%. The 'Dawgs may not have played pretty basketball, but they did what they needed to do, and the only statistic that matters is the final score. They earned the victory by being more efficient with the easy shots.
What words should I write about Kentucky? Yeah, I could go on a pejorative rant about all sorts of things, and maybe everyone would agree that this team has completely underachieved, and worse, been disappointing not only to the fans, but to their own experience. How many of these young guys have ever lost this many games in a season? I don’t really know and I don’t much care. What I do care about is that Kentucky basketball, and the fans that make it special, feel every one of these defeats as though it was the loss of a body part, and just this moment, I’m feeling pretty darn dismembered.
What went wrong? Statistically, it was different than the last couple of games in that Kentucky won the rebounding battle and didn’t turn it over excessively. On the other hand, unlike other recent defeats, Kentucky shot the ball abysmally, managing just 37% from the floor, 23% from the arc, and 56% from the line, which they only managed to visit 18 times. This game was lost primarily by a lack of offensive execution, rather than a non-existent defense, turnovers, or rebounding that has been the recent trend.
That isn’t to say the defense, ballhandling, or rebounding were great, but they were at least minimally acceptable. Kentucky forced Georgia into numerous horrible shots, and managed to get quite a few good looks themselves. Unfortunately, the Gods of Basketball Offense were not feeling the Wildcats tonight, and most of those open looks wound up careening off the the goal, or missing it entirely. Kyle Wiltjer even managed to shoot an air ball so wide of the mark it almost missed the entire court.
I’m not going to go into the NCAA implications, because after this, there are none, not really. Kentucky isn’t an NCAA team, and I can see many of you out there staring at that statement as though it was uttered by an idiot, because only an idiot, in the basketball sense, would think such a palpable observation worthy of mention. Alas, it falls to me to make sure the low-information fan is not confused by the historic record of the team these young men represent.
If I seem harsh, I don’t mean to. These are youths we are talking about, by and large, and we have seen many young teams struggle worse than the Wildcats have this year. When John Calipari undertook his great experiment of bringing in talented young guys and promptly sending them off to the NBA a mere six months or so later, we all accepted the possibility that this could happen. Most of us embraced it, and most of us will continue to embrace it even when it doesn’t deliver as planned. Human beings, especially ones who have barely achieved legal majority, are anything but a finished product.
Yes, we are disappointed and frustrated, but that’s all part of being a fan – the reality is that you fail to grasp the brass ring far more often than you succeed, and in spite of the traumatic experience of going from an NCAA championship to an NIT team (at best), the journey is why we do it, not just the result. Even football fans who don’t care for basketball watch the NCAA tournament.
No, the dream isn’t quite dead, but I have surrendered my hopes to the precious present in front of me. What I see is a team without a leader and without self-confidence. They try to play well, but they don’t believe in themselves, or in each other. For whatever reason, this young team is just like almost any other good, young team in America, not the amazing titans of last year. It’s tough to go from great to average, but that’s where we are. It’s probably not even remotely fair to expect such an achievement to be repeated, but for whatever reason, we do.
We will continue to support and cheer for this team, in this space, until the last game is done. Most of us will not give up on them, but most of our expectations are now dust, blown away with the March winds. Watching without expectations will be a different experience for some of us, at least in recent history, but speaking for myself, that’s where I’ll be.
All this aside, this is our team, and these are our young men. They have seen more adversity than any other Wildcats team in the last three years, and though they have struggled to handle it, most teams of their years and experience probably would as well. So instead of giving them the business, I think it best that we embrace what we have and move on. I am fresh out of hopes, but I am not out of love for the guys that wear the Blue and White, no matter the score.