Last night was a game to remember, no doubt about it. In fact, there is little doubt this season will live in Kentucky lore forever, whether the Wildcats actually go on to defeat the Connecticut Huskies in the final or not. I suspect that never in history has a team won so many NCAA Tournament games by such a small collective margin. Even more amazing, I doubt there has ever been a player in America to make so many clutch 3-pointers in the NCAA Tournament as Aaron Harrison. Earlier in the season, I had to ban a couple of folks from the community and warn a fair number of others about their verbal mistreatment of Aaron and Andrew Harrison. I suspect that will no longer be necessary, and that's a very good thing.
Congratulations again to Wisconsin on an outstanding year. I know they are proud of what Bo Ryan and their team accomplished this season, and they manifestly should be. Wisconsin proved, as if they really needed to prove it yet again, that they belonged in the Final Four with these three other frequent visitors to the event, and they acquitted themselves with class, style, and a tremendous effort that came up one last-second shot short of their second ever NCAA Tournament final. Respect to them, their team, and their coach.
You know that a kind of straight honesty is necessary in these postmortems, and honestly, this was not a good game by Kentucky. They very much reverted to the Dribble Drive, Fling and Hope for large swaths of this contest. Having said that, the Wildcats also did some things very well that deserve praise. When you are talking about freshmen, you are going to see them occasionally fall into old habits, but the cool thing is that despite negatives which were killing them a month ago, they are now able to play through them and find ways to win.
Let's have a look at the numbers:
It's remarkable that Kentucky, as poorly as it has handled the ball this year, managed only 6.5% turnovers. Yes, that's a season record, and most assuredly a critical reason why Kentucky managed to win this game.
Wisconsin's numbers are simply staggering. To play this well and lose must really sting. It's damned rare for a team to lose a game with an effective field goal percentage over 54%, and missing only one of twenty free throws. How did it happen? Kentucky got eight more shots than the Badgers.
Another remarkable thing about Wisconsin is they did it without Frank Kaminsky, who managed only eight points in the entire game.
Where did the eight extra shots come from? Offensive rebounds and turnovers produce shot disparity.
Kentucky only shot 5 threes. That's way, way too few. What's happened here is Calipari has once again got them driving at all costs. I hope he realizes that's a risky play. If the calls don't go his way, and a lot of them didn't last night, he will wind up losing playing like this.
You may think me ridiculous second-guessing a coach who just navigated his way to the NCAA Tournament final through a minefield, but it's my responsibility to do that. We must have better passing and more perimeter shooting, not the DDFH. Kentucky was much better without the DDFH.
Getting 34% of their misses playing one of the best defensive rebounding teams in the nation tells you all you need to know about these Wildcats. They are unstoppable on the glass.
Only 1 blocked shot? That ties a season low.
Alex Poythress had a fantastic game. He was flawless from the floor, defended better than anyone else, got 7 rebounds and didn't make a single turnover. Game ball.
Julius Randle tied for runner-up. He made a number of great shots, shot a solid percentage from the floor. He missed one too many free throws, though, and had a turnover. Randle also played very solid defense.
Dakari Johnson ties Randle as runner up. This is one of his best lines ever. I just thought Alex was a tiny bit better.
James Young had a very good game. I wish we could have gotten him more open looks from three. Defensively, he was up and down, and he has been very inconsistent on that end of the floor all year. He made some plays on defense, but he also made some errors that led to layups.
What can you say about a guy who makes the winning shot three games in a row? Aaron Harrison did not have his best statistical game by any means, but the steely-eyed killer of the deep shot a 3-point torpedo right into Wisconsin's heart, and sank their Tank.
Andrew Harrison had the worst game of anybody, in my view. He took 14 shots making a whopping 4. That's exactly the kind of numbers he was having when we were losing games like this. This is unacceptable, and must stop. Look, I know what good basketball looks like, and this was not what we need from Andrew. Hopefully, we won't see this ever again from him.
Marcus Lee was once again excellent in limited duty. He had 4 big points on put-backs, got the team's only block, and is really looking quite confident out there.
Jarrod Polson did not play as much as I think he should have, but then, I've never won a single game as coach. Still, Jarrod got a rebound and I though he played well defensively.
Somehow I managed to overlook Dominique Hawkins in my earlier version of this. Hawkins was outstanding in 11 minutes defensively, and made a great layup on a sweet cut to the hoop for his first points of the post season.
Tying it all up
I have to be honest, I didn't like the way Kentucky played the game. I like the way the players competed, I liked the fact that Kentucky just keeps coming at you like some kind of limitless tsunami, but we can't have our point guard jacking up 14 shots, that's no freaking good at all. I'm done complaining about that.
As to what UK did well, there were so many things. Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress have taken it to another level off the bench. There are no superlatives for what Aaron has done in this tournament, it is simply scintillating and spectacular, to channel Dick Vitale just a bit. It really takes nerves of steel to take big shots like that three games in a row, make or miss. That he made them was amazing, but the guts to take them is what is special.
Randle is probably not getting enough credit from me for the great game he had, but honestly, I try to spread the love around wherever possible. All these young men have been fantastic in the tournament, and while I am forced to direct a little criticism Andrew's way, he really has been great most of the time. This was just not his best game, and that happens to us all. I love the kid, he's got more on his shoulders than the rest of them do, and sometimes that burden, added as it is to his own self-expectations, looks like a very heavy load to bear. Other times, he handles it with ease. It really is asking too much to expect perfect consistency from such a young man.
Now, just a few comments on this season. It's hard even for me to put into words how it feels getting this far after what we've collectively been through with this team. After being assured by all and sundry that this season was the perfect reprise of last season, that Calipari's experiment had failed, and that Kentucky was getting the just deserts of a cynical program with no soul, there are simply no words for my pleasure at seeing those people forced to acknowledge the prematurity of their judgment. No matter what happens going forward, John Calipari has produced exactly what he said he would when he came to Kentucky:
My vision is one of celebrations and banquets; diplomas and banners; rings and parades. . .
. . . A return of this legendary program back to its rightful place atop the mountain of college basketball. . .
A vision that sees the you, greatest fans in all of sports once again puffing your chests and chanting in whatever language you choose, and however loudly you want to shout it, Go Big blue! Go big blue! Go Big Blue!
Win or lose tomorrow, John Calipari has delivered on this promise, and he has done it in the right way. More importantly, though, he has forced us all to look at college basketball differently. Some have chosen cynicism and sneering reproofs, pointing to Kentucky as the archetype for what is wrong with college basketball. The truth is that Kentucky is demonstrating the world as it is, and what can be accomplished if you are a true iconclast in a world so caught up in it's own self-importance, so stuck in the past that it cannot embrace the future because it would throw down their idols of clay and gold.
Meanwhile, those of us who embrace and accept change for what it is are having us a big old time. Hakuna matata, Big Blue Nation. #9, we're coming for you.