Feeling the Jubilation, Feeling the Pain
Being a sports fan, regardless of which college or pro team one roots for, is by definition (either) an exercise in elation, or a killjoy of profound magnitude. For Kentucky basketball fans those emotional rivals, elation and depression, are magnified beyond what the everyday fan feels with each win and loss of one's favorite team. Not that UK fans are better or more in-tune with their team, rather, UK basketball fans viscerally experience, not only every win and loss, but every possession, every shot, every rebound, every substitution, every pass, every made dunk or missed layup. Literally every Wildcat movement inspires a reaction. For many UK fans it makes for an exhaustive sporting experience, but an experience no one with blue blood pumping through their veins would trade for any amount of money or fame, even when the 'Cats come up short by the smallest of margins.
Winning and losing, that's what sports are all about, especially in Kentucky. One can pontificate about character building, and sports definitely reveals and sometimes builds character, but from the fan's perspective it's all about winning and losing. When Kentucky wins the sky is a little bluer, the grass a little greener, the pep in the step a little pluckier, and when Kentucky loses the Commonwealth reaches for the Maalox and rewinds the game tape, searching for the reasons why.
Symmetry at its Tastiest ... and Nastiest
Over a seven day period, from Saturday, December 3rd, to Saturday, December 10th, 'Cat fans traveled 'round the world. On their whirlwind trip, the Wildcat faithful first experienced the jubilation of beating long-time rival North Carolina by a single point in raucous, ready-for-the-rumble Rupp Arena. Followed too quickly by the depression of losing on the road to long-time rival Indiana, by a single point, in front of a frenzied crimson and cream crowd anticipating the re-emergence of their once beleaguered, yet always beloved Hoosiers.
Too simply put, if UK and UNC had battled on a neutral court instead of Rupp Arena, the 'Cats probably lose the game. On the other hand, if UK played IU on a neutral court, instead of Assembly Hall, the 'Cats probably win. In the span of seven days, what came around, went around, and Kentucky emerged 1-1, winning 73-72 and losing 73-72, leaving UK fans to ponder what might have been.
Wonderments to Behold
- If nothing else, over the last two games UK fans discovered how closely related winning and losing are ... like first cousins. Against UNC, UK got the win because of a Anthony Davis block in the final seconds, after the intended shooter, Tyler Zeller, lost his grip on the ball during a head fake. Against Indiana, the Hoosiers came out on top because of a challenged, last second 3-pointer by Christian Watford (ironically, a one-time Billy Gillispie recruit), after UK somehow, inexplicably failed to foul with two to give (a decision just as hard to understand as Carolina not fouling UK after Davis' block of Henson's shot with six seconds remaining). If we didn't already know, it's a game of inches and split-second decisions.
- And the startling decision by the Wildcats to not foul as the Hoosiers moved the ball in position for the last second shot, is perfectly encapsulated by John Calipari, for just after Watford's shot found the net and before the IU masses stormed the court, Cal grabbed his wrist as he walked on the court asking his team, "Why didn't you foul?" Kids. Can't live with 'em, can't shoot 'em.
- Against Indiana, Indianapolis native Marquis Teague played possibly the worst half of basketball a UK point guard has played in a big game since ... well, a very long time. Teague made zero of five shots and turned the ball over three times in the first half, leading Calipari to bench his starting point guard to start the second stanza. But my, oh my, Teague played out of his mind in the second half. Finally taking advantage of his match-up with IU's Jordan Hulls, Teague repeatedly took the Hoosier guard off the dribble and straight to the rim, nearly bringing UK back from the brink of extinction all by his lonesome. Teague's second half totals, six for six field goals, three of three free throws, and 15 points.
- The scouting report on IU said the threesome of Jordan Hulls, Watford, and top reserve Will Sheehey, combined to make 46.2% of their 3-point tries (30-65) on the season. Against the 'Cats, with very little ball denial on the perimeter, and more than a few wide open looks after UK refused to hedge on the shooter off the screen, the trio made nine of 14 from long-range (64.3%), essentially sealing Kentucky's fate. This, after North Carolina torched the 'Cats from beyond the arc with 11 trifectas on 14 tries (78.6%)
- No-Show Jones ... uh, I mean Terrence Jones' performance has been thoroughly disseminated and rightfully excoriated by everyone from his coach to those who cover the 'Cats, so I won't pile on here. But, I would be interested in knowing what Jones was looking at all day, because quite frankly, he seemed to be staring into the abyss. His demeanor suggested he was shell-shocked and completely lost (except when he drove the length of the floor and delivered the ball to the basket ... that one time), almost like a man not sure of where he was, which was especially surprising considering he has played in and delivered several times in big games in his brief UK career. Just last week against UNC Jones played like the great player he is, with 14 points (all in the first half), seven boards, and three blocks, that, after a 26-point performance against St. John's. Come to the light, Terrence, come to the light.
- Michael Kidd-Gilchrist -- Wow, when the light comes on, it really comes on for the freshman. MKG has simply been magnificent over the last two contests, scoring 35 points, grabbing 20 rebounds (eight offensive), while making 15 of 22 shots from the field. In both games he was assertive, unafraid, and as beastly as he wanted to be.
- Darius Miller scored eight points versus IU, all in the second half, but the senior has to be more mindful of when his offense is needed. Miller, who took and missed two shots in 11 first half minutes, must assert himself when a collection of his high scoring teammates are struggling (see Terrence Jones and Anthony Davis). Yes, for a one or two minute stretch in the middle of the second half Miller delivered some big baskets, and his eight points are right at his season average, but much more was needed from the senior. Last year UK lifted-off for the Final Four when the upperclassmen began taking an expanded offensive role, Miller needs to remember the 2011 turnaround for the ages and play accordingly.
73-72 ... it was the best of times, it was the worst of times, but one common denominator this UK team displayed in both games is the ability and will to come back when faced with serious adversity. And that, sports fans, is a commendable team trait. Let's face it, Kentucky isn't going to always be ahead on the scoreboard; Kentucky isn't always going to make a high percentage of their shots; Kentucky will at times run up against a team seemingly destined to beat the 'Cats, but with the type of unmitigated resolve we witnessed from a number of 'Cats this past Saturday, victory will always be a possibility, and most often, become reality.
Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!