It has been a while since the last installment of this series, and I confess I am trying to stretch this out all the way through the summer to the Big Blue Bahamas. Obviously, during the dog days, there really isn’t a great deal of basketball news other than recruiting, and sometimes it’s good to look back over the last year a little at a time.
We have, in the first three parts of this series, looked at the entire regular season of the Kentucky Wildcats in 2013-14. We have relived what can only be described as the agony of a good team apparently gone bad, a season filled with promise that slowly declined into what can only be described as mediocrity for a Kentucky team. In fact, the finish of the season was more than just a disappointment, it was sufficiently incompetent to drive many passionate members of the Big Blue Nation to complete apathy. Even on A Sea of Blue, articles were appearing casting doubt on Calipari’s methods, and it got so bad that we lost a few members who could not control their disappointment either with the coach or the team. It was a difficult time. It may not seem so bad in retrospect, as time and events ameliorate some recollections, but I recall it as one of the more difficult times to be a Kentucky fan since the Billy Gillispie Experiment, and even tougher than the year before.
As bad as it was, and as great as the suffering of the Big blue Nation became, most of us still retained some hope that maybe the Wildcats could reach the Sweet Sixteen and save the season from complete calamity. Hope remained, but actual faith in the Wildcats had declined to a level even lower than 2012-13’s visit to the NIT. Expectations had been so much higher for this season than the one before, and the distance from which we fell left a bigger bruise on our collective psyche — all the way from pre-season #1 to an unranked team needing to win a game in the SEC Tournament to ensure the NIT debacle wasn’t repeated.
As Kentucky limped into the SEC Tournament, Calipari mentioned the now-famous "tweak" to the offense, which captured the imagination of the Big Blue Nation, and became big news around the Commonwealth. In retrospect, all that attention could probably be most accurately described as grasping at straws — we were desperate for anything to validate the thin shred of hope some, but by no means all, of the Big Blue Nation still retained. It was typical sports desperation, but those of us not mired in apathy embraced it, foolish as it seems looking back.
The SEC Tournament
The Wildcats managed to earn the #2 seed in the SEC Tournament, which matched them up against the winner of the Alabama Crimson Tide vs. the LSU Tigers. Most Kentucky fans were concerned about the possibility of facing LSU again, as their quicker guards and the skill of Johnny O’Bryant, not to mention the depth of their big men, had proven to be a tough matchup for Kentucky. True to form, the Tigers defeated the Tide convincingly to face Kentucky.
This would be Kentucky’s best game of the post season, all told. But it didn’t start out that way. Once again, Kentucky got off to a slow start that had epitomized their season — falling behind early in the game and then having to claw their way back in. For the first seven minutes or so of the game, it looked very much like the same Kentucky team that had fallen supine before the Tigers in Baton Rouge, with the Wildcats on the bad end of a 20-14 score. But then the "tweak" took hold.
Kentucky took the lead three minutes later and never surrendered it again. The Wildcats would take a 43-32 lead into the half. In the second stanza, the Tigers would make a push to get within four points, but the Wildcats quickly pushed it back out to seven and doggedly held on. With five minutes to go, the Wildcats exploded, quickly pushing the lead out to double-digits. There was no let up this time, and Kentucky went on to a convincing 85-67 win.
Kentucky looked like a completely different team against the Tigers, and the big reason for it was that the Wildcats, instead of the Dribble Drive Fling and Hope began to run a coherent Dribble Drive Motion offense. The result was more passing from the initiators of the offense, be it Andrew Harrison or James Young. Instead of flinging up prayers hoping for putbacks, the Wildcats were probing the lane, passing to open shooters, and making unchallenged shots. It was a game Wildcats fans hadn’t seen in over two months. The Big Blue Nation, looking for something — anything — to give them reason to validate their hopes, suddenly felt the warm breath of destiny on their cheek. Could it be? Could this team turn around against all odds?
In the other half of the bracket, the Georgia Bulldogs put away the Ole Miss rebels to set up the third meeting between Kentucky and Georgia for the right to go to the SEC final. But the Big Blue Nation knew that if this was a team of destiny, it would be Florida and Kentucky in the final.
The Georgia game was different from all the recent Kentucky games that had proven so difficult for the young Wildcats. Kentucky burst into and early ten point lead, and even though Kentucky wasn’t able to expand it, Georgia never managed to get closer than seven until just before the break, they got it down to four.
The second half was nip and tuck for the first eight minutes or so, with UK and Georgia battling it out in a narrow 4-7 point range with Kentucky never surrendering their halftime lead, nor able to expand it much. At about the 12-minute mark, Kentucky abruptly leaped out to a 10-point bulge, and by the 2 minute mark, they had a comfortable 14-point lead. The game was statistically over, and the Wildcats cruised to a convincing 70-58 victory.
This particular game was notable for the excellent 3-point shooting of the Wildcats, and it was the point at which Aaron Harrison began his torrid post-season run.
Nothing is more annoying to Kentucky fans than getting swept in the regular season, but the indignity of going 0-3 against an SEC team is more than annoying, it’s completely frustrating. But coming into this final game with the Gators, the Wildcats were on a roll, and the Gators were defending a long winning streak that had to end sometime. The Big Blue Nation was hopeful that this would be the third time that pays for all.
This was back to the old, slow-starting Kentucky, and the Gators took control of the game halfway through the first half, jumping out to a 14-point lead with four minutes remaining in the half. Kentucky came storming back, getting it back to eight at one point but still going into the half down by ten. Florida was scorching the nets from everywhere, and Kentucky seemed powerless to stop them. Unlike the previous game, Aaron Harrison’s stroke was off, and Kentucky was reeling.
For most of the second half, it was more of the same, and eight minutes in, the Gators had expanded their lead to 16. This game was taking on a similar cast to the final Florida-Kentucky game of the regular season in Gainsville, where the Gators dominated Kentucky completely.
But there had been a change in the Wildcats, and starting with around 11 minutes left in the half, Kentucky stormed back, cutting it to two with more than six minutes left, 54-52. Usually what happens to teams down big who get to this point is that they swoon, and lose convincingly after a hard comeback. But not this time.
Instead, Kentucky and Florida battled it out as equals. Florida gained a four point advantage which they held to near the end, when James Young made a cold-blooded three to get it within one with 91 seconds left. Some missed Florida free throws and a couple of empty possessions by both teams found the game still at 60-61 and Kentucky with the ball in the front court.
Aaron Harrison got the ball , and attempted to penetrate. When he was shut off by the Gators, He handed the ball off to James Young cutting to the basket and with a lane. Inexplicably, Young slipped and fell, the ball came free, and the game ended.
While the Wildcats were unhappy with the loss, they knew this was a game they should have won. Young had a wide-open lane to the basket, the ball in his dominant hand, and visions of a thunderous dunk in his head. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Kentucky would be the runner-up in the SEC Tournament, but hope had been restored to the Big Blue Nation to some extent as the Wildcats had very nearly knocked off the #1 team in the land.
The SEC Tournament marked an inflection point for Kentucky. Coming out of the regular season, Kentucky had looked like an early upset in the SEC Tournament to any of several league teams, especially LSU who had given the Wildcats a lopsided loss in Baton Rouge and just came up short of reprising that in Lexington.
One big thing that happened as a result of this SEC Tournament is that the Big Blue Nation began to once again believe an NCAA tournament run was theoretically possible, if not particularly likely. Kentucky looked like a completely different team in the conference tournament, and it is always better to be on an upswing going into the biggest tournament of the year than otherwise. Kentucky was definitely on an upswing, and the mood of the Big Blue Faithful, while far from ebullient or optimistic, was at least curious to see what would happen.
But perhaps the most important part of this particular group of games was contest against the Florida Gators. The Gators had risen to #1, and deservedly so. Kentucky suffered two defeats at their hands in the regular season, one of them an uncompetitive dismissal in Gainesville. The Wildcats lost for the third time in the league tournament final, but could well have won the game but for a slip of James Young’s sneaker. That near-success would translate into something magical as Kentucky now readied itself, and its newfound confidence, for an NCAA tournament in which they were likely to have a tough path to travel.
Just how tough would surprise everyone.