After a day of laying around the house watching Easter-apropos movies, I finally feel like offering a few remarks about the Kentucky Wildcats’ loss to the Wisconsin Badgers. The Big Blue Nation knows a few things about disappointment, having suffered big losses in three of their four recent trips to college basketball’s last weekend.
Saturday night’s game and its aftermath was a catastrophe for the team, no doubt about it. It was made worse by two events which cast the University of Kentucky and its players in a bad light. The first was that some of the players walked off the floor without shaking the hands of Wisconsin, as mandated by NCAA rules. No matter what you think of that tradition, that was very poor sportsmanship by the players involved. I am not sure exactly who was involved for sure, but it has been reported that Willie Cauley-Stein and the Harrison twins were among them. That was a bad look for the university, the program, and the players involved.
In addition, there was the now-famous (or more correctly, infamous) sotto voce profane and racially offensive comment by Andrew Harrison that was picked up by a live microphone. That was inexcusably rude, and even though he apologized and the object of his remark — Wisconsin forward Frank Kaminsky — has both accepted that apology and minimized its import in a way that reeks of class, it still makes Andrew, a player who has been excellent all season in almost every imaginable way look juvenile and unsportsmanlike.
Combined, these two things have made matters worse, embarrassed the school and its fans. We could spend all day rationalizing excuses for both, but you’ll not be reading them from me. This is not the way Kentucky does things, especially their flagship sport. We should expect better from our team, and I know that we do. The loss was disappointing, but the unsportsmanlike conduct even more so.
I hate to write things like this, and I know you hate to read them, but they must be said. We cannot hide from or ignore events because they embarrass us. We are ethically required to straightforwardly face them, learn from them, and regret them. We have to look them in the eye and judge them accurately, and both actions deserve some measure of condemnation and reproof. Yes, youth is a mitigating factor, but as adults, these guys are responsible for what they say and do. No excuses.
Having said all this, please refrain from bashing our players, even the malefactors in these two unfortunate incidents. Judicious, balanced criticism is fair and welcome, but I have a rule against player bashing which will be strictly enforced.
Now that I’ve said all I intend to say about those unfortunate events, there is the game to consider. My overall impression prior to full analysis is that this was Kentucky’s poorest overall performance this year, and it was a team effort. I cannot fathom why Calipari chose to switch pick and rolls. I assume it was because last weekend, when Kentucky hedged Notre Dame’s pick and rolls, the fact that they did a poor job recovering to the roll player led to many easy baskets.
However, Wisconsin is not Notre Dame, and the switches created many mismatches, particularly with Kaminsky, that Wisconsin was consistently able to exploit. I think that was a poor coaching decision by Coach Cal. I was also perplexed by the team going into what Calipari calls "grind mode" after taking a 4-point lead at 60-56 with over 6:30 to play. Calipari claims that this wasn't his instruction, so perhaps it was just a reflexive action by the team. Of course, Calipari is an about-to-be hall of fame basketball coach, and I’m a simple blogger, so one could certainly be forgiven for trusting his judgment over mine.
I was also troubled by Kentucky’s lack of rebounding. It has been a bit of a sore spot all season, but generally, Kentucky did a good enough job on the offensive glass to offset the rebounds they surrendered. Unfortunately, that was not the case Saturday night, as we’ll soon see.
At this point, it would be remiss and unfair not to acknowledge the smart, tough, and outstanding play by the Wisconsin badgers. They absolutely deserved to win this game, and whatever you think about a multi-game series, the NCAA Tournament is a one-shot deal. Either you win six in a row, or you go home disappointed. Saturday night, Wisconsin was the better team. Whether they are objectively the better team or not will remain forever academic. There are no do-overs in the Big Dance. Congratulations and well-wishes going forward to the Badgers and their fans.
Kentucky did a very poor job offensive and defensive rebounding. If you want one stat that likely cost Kentucky the game, that is the one.
The Wildcats were unable to take advantage of their edge in free throw rate. Kentucky only shot 10 free throws. They made almost all of them, shooting 90%, but they didn’t get enough opportunities.
Shooting the ball was not really much of a problem for Kentucky, but defending Wisconsin definitely was. They allowed the Badgers an eFG% of 55%, an obscenely high number. The number one defense was definitely overcome by the number one offense.
The assist rate for Kentucky was extremely low for this team at 27%. Compare it to Wisconsin’s 43.5%.
Kentucky did a fair job turning Wisconsin over. They are a very low turnover team, and UK got ten while giving up only six themselves.
The Wildcats struggled to guard the pick and roll, but for a completely different reason than in the Notre Dame game. This time they switched the pick and roll, and mismatches in the paint were successfully exploited by Wisconsin.
Kentucky lost most of the 50/50 balls, which makes me wonder if Wisconsin didn’t simply want this game more than the Wildcats.
Kentucky also made many mental errors in this game, not going for balls they should have, leaving shooters (Andrew or Aaron completely left Bronson Koenig wide open for no apparent reason, resulting in a three).
I don’t usually award game balls in losses. I see no reason to award one today. The game ball should go to the winners.
Andrew Harrison, Tyler Ulis and Karl-Anthony Towns all had good games. Andrew had 4 assists to only 1 turnover, shot it decently well and made free throws. Towns did likewise. Ulis got but a single assist, however, he made a couple of huge threes that really helped Kentucky’s cause.
Willie Cauley-Stein was largely a non-factor. He didn’t stop the players he defended, he shot a poor percentage, managed only 5 rebounds. He did get two blocks and a steal.
Trey Lyles was not great. He shot an okay percentage, made some dumb freshman plays, and managed only one rebound.
Aaron Harrison shot the ball well and played well overall. There’s not much to complain about, and he shot a good percentage. That last 3-point shot he took, though, was completely out of rhythm and ill-advised. It may be unfair, but I expected more from Mr. Big Shot.
Devin Booker was once again abused on defense. As they year went on, Booker got worse and worse defensively, although some of it wasn’t his fault, as he wound up on bigger people close to the basket because of switching on picks. He shot the ball okay, but other than one rebound, made no further impact on the stats, or the game.
Dakari Johnson continued his season-long struggle. I just attribute it to a sophomore slump, we see it all the time. He logged only eight minutes.
Marcus Lee was okay. He didn’t play much, and didn’t impact the box score other than a missed shot and a turnover.
This also seems the right moment to lament the season loss of Alex Poythress, and not for the first time. Think he could've helped in this game? Oh, yeah.
Tying it all up
Obviously, this is not what Kentucky fans wanted or expected. This season had been going so well that to have it crash suddenly down around us is a shock to the system, and a brutal way to end a magnificent season that will be remembered as much for the painful loss in the Final Four as for the record-breaking run to get there undefeated.
Once again, a season ends without an NCAA Tournament title. It’s hard to complain too much about that, because honestly, we had our chance both this season and last, and we failed to close the deal both times. That’s a bitter pill to swallow, but unfortunately, that’s our lot for the moment. Kentucky fans have been treated to one of the great seasons in college basketball history, but we’ve also been forced to see it end two games short of our hopes.
We can’t be too down, though. Consider that at the start of this decade, we had not been to a Final Four for twelve long seasons. Since then, we have been to four Final Fours with one NCAA Tournament championship. Sadly, Calipari’s record in Final Fours has not been as stellar as we might all like, but a couple of the teams he got to that point, 2011 and last season, arguably didn’t belong there. Even more ironic is that both of them got further than this historic team, who manifestly did belong there.
Coach Cal is in good company, too. Mike Krzyzewski made it to the Final Four four times before winning his first NCAA championship in his fifth opportunity. This year marks Tom Izzo’s fifth consecutive trip to the Final Four without a title. Rick Pitino was 1 for 3 at Kentucky, and so was Joe B. Hall.
Paraphrasing Jimmy Dugan from A League Of Their Own, winning it all is hard, and it’s supposed to be hard. It’s the "hard" that makes it great. Too hard, it turns out, for Kentucky this season.