On a bitter cold night, in December… somewhere out in the vast open spaces of Kansas in 1989, a dismal start became the beginning of something that was truly Unforgettable.
In Allen Fieldhouse, the Kentucky Wildcats were blown out of the gym by the Kansas Jayhawks, 150-95. Kansas had a fantastic team, coached by Roy Williams, but it was not Williams’ ability to coach that led to the blowout.
Instead, it was the dogged decision of persistence made by the then Kentucky head coach, Rick Pitino to do something that made no sense to anyone – stick to his game plan.
The first year Kentucky coach believed that over the course of the game you could wear a team down with a relentless full-court press. The goal was to press your opponent into oblivion.
Sadly, over the course of the game, the Kansas team, playing at home, had no trouble breaking the UK press over, and over, and still over again.
By the end of the first half, Kansas had piled up 80 points and lead the Cats by 21. The game in many ways had been decided.
But something else had been decided as well. Pitino had decided to stick with this plan, he was going to keep pressing. It was unthinkable of course, because it was apparent to everyone that it was not going to work.
KU coach Williams said the crazy out of whack total was unavoidable.
“We got 80 at halftime, and we score 100 with over 13 minutes left,” Williams said. “I turned to our staff and said, ‘How do we get this thing slowed down?’ Jerry Green, the assistant coach said, ‘You can’t slow it down unless Pitino stops pressing.’”
He was not going to stop.
The Wildcats had eight scholarship players, the team was on probation, with a limited number of players available, by the end of the regulation play, three had fouled out, three more had four fouls.
To be honest, the Cats were outplayed, they were shorthanded, and they were running out of options. Coach Williams gestured for Pitino to stop the pressing late in the game, but this was the system he was putting into place and no matter what the beat down would end up being, he was sticking with the plan.
Along the way, he picked up two technical fouls over the forty minutes and wrapped up the night by clearing the locker room and blistering the paint off the walls in frustration over the outcome.
This unspectacular start was the beginning of what would become a legendary run for The Unforgettables. One of the all-time great teams and beloved by the fans of Kentucky basketball.
Many don’t remember the beginning but instead will remember the fun, the memories, and the moments this team would give Big Blue Nation with a run and gun style of play that featured relentless, devastating, and unforgiving full-court pressure.
This forgettable moment in the legendary run of the Unforgettables brings us to this new season. Over the weekend, Kentucky Basketball’s first home exhibition game of the new season happened in Rupp Arena, where John Calipari’s Wildcats hosted Missouri Western for a 40-minute exhibition game.
In the end, Kentucky scored a meager 56 points in the 18-point win over its Division II opponent. The highlight was CJ Fredrick‘s team-high 15 points on 4/6 shooting from 3-point range. The rest of the team shot 3/16 from outside in a game that was closer than anyone imagined. The game wasn’t much fun to watch. It was an eight-point game at halftime, a nine-point game with nine to go on the clock, and the Cats were out-rebounded the entire night, 36-35.
Sahvir Wheeler went down with a leg injury, Oscar Tshiebwe is still working his way back from minor surgery, and of course – all the Cal critics were lining up to analyze the season after one exhibition game.
History reminds us that unremarkable beginnings can make for unforgettable memories. Time will tell, the story will be played out on the court, but the season is here, and it is time for the fun to begin.