Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Won-And-Done Is The Headline I Have Seen The Most, And The Most Appropriate


Probably the best regular season college basketball game I got to watch this year was the final edition of the Border War on Feb. 25.  Just three weeks before, Missouri stormed back and scored the last 11 points to defeat Kansas, 74-71, on their home floor.  With revenge on their mind, the Jayhawks roared back from a 19-point hole 3 ½ minutes into the second half to tie the Tigers in regulation, and then beat them in overtime on their home floor, 87-86.

This Jayhawks group, one that was predicted to be in a rebuilding year because it lost about 75% of its scoring and two-thirds of its rebounding from last year’s team, made a hell of a run this year under coach Bill Self.  Comebacks from huge deficits became a calling card for this ‘Hawks squad, encapsulated by their arduous road to the Final Four.  They trailed at halftime in tournament games against Purdue, N.C. St. and Ohio St. (and was tied with North Carolina), and came back to win them all.

No dice when it counted the most, against Kentucky in Monday’s national championship game.  They stunned me by trying to mount one more comeback from a halftime deficit, this one 14.  But they couldn’t shave it closer than five against what was the wire-to-wire best team in the land.

Kansas just could not afford to dig itself such a big hole against a team that good.  After the game Self said that Kentucky scored 12 points on the fast break in the first half.  More crucially, of course, Kentucky’s defense got into the Jayhawks’ heads.  Many of the unofficial count of 11 missed lay-ups and 2 missed dunks occurred before intermission.

And yet. …  Kentucky allowed Kansas to get back into the game.  They started off 1-for-8 from the field.  Unfortunately, so did the Jayhawks.

The first half of the second half had as many moments KU fans will look back on and shake their heads over as the frantic final minutes.  There was Anthony Davis knocking loose a Thomas Robinson rebound he was cradling on the bend of his arm at 14:47 of the second half; Terrence Jones dunked the ball to give UK a 46-30 lead.  And when Kansas cut the lead to 10, Doron Lamb, who led all players with 22 points, drained back-to-back threes to swell the Wildcat lead back up to 16 at 10:00.

And yet. …  The Jayhawks managed to come back again.  A lot of it came from the resolute Robinson (18 points, 17 rebounds), guard Elijah Johnson (three threes, 13 points) and center Jeff Withey (doing a pretty good job of preventing Davis from scoring).  A lot of it also came from the puzzling offensive passivity the Wildcats sported in the second half.  In his post-game comments, Wildcat coach John Calipari admitted he played not to lose, and as any cliché-loving sports analyst knows, when you play to lose, you will lose.

But Calipari should thank the deity he prays to for Davis.  Actually, he should feel blessed for recruiting the dynamic Michael Kidd-Gilchrist as well.  MKG had an overall awesome night to complete a superlative season: 11 points, 6 rebounds and the Play of the Game: Swatting away a sure lay-up by Tyshawn Taylor (harassed all night) with 63 seconds left in the game.  Taylor then tried to save the ball from going out-of-bounds and instead threw it into the backcourt for one of his five turnovers.

The team picking second in this year’s NBA draft should not be disappointed over missing out on Davis if they get Kidd-Gilchrist.  In fact, because of MKG’s more polished offensive game, you could make the argument he should be drafted before Davis.  Yeah, I said it.  That debate should be had.

However, on this night in New Orleans, no one played voodoo tricks better than the guy who’s so damn good, people actually think his unibrow is awesome, not gross.  The young man who deserved the Most Outstanding Player award shot only 1-of-10 from the floor for only six points (credit again goes to Withey and to Self for taking away that part of his game), but he towered over the game otherwise – 16 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals and 6 blocks, tied with Florida’s Joakim Noah for most in a title game.  (Kentucky as a team blocked 11, a record for a national championship contest.)

And Davis was the one who flung out his osprey-wingspan arms to, and there’s no other way of putting it, scare Johnson into double-clutching on his three-point attempt and get called for travelling, ending the last of several Kansas comeback attempts.  Even though Kentucky was up by 6 with only 24 seconds left, Davis’s might-as-well-be-a-block encapsulated the story of this game and his main role in it.

After the final Davis said he told his teammates, “You score the ball, I’ll just rebound.”  Cleaning up for his boys – the most sensational one-and-done player since Carmelo Anthony epitomized the acronym of the individual accolade he justly won: MOP.  (Which is the weirder fact about Davis: That he was a 6’2” guard just two years ago, or that his junior and senior high school teams both won only six games?)

How much did defense dominate offense in the 2012 men’s college basketball tournament final?  The Wildcats shot only 27% in the second half, and won.  Kansas was only 17-of-51 (33.3%) on two-point attempts, their worst percentage all season.  (The two met on November 15; UK won that game too, by limiting KU to only 36.4% inside the arc, which becomes the Jayhawks’ second-worst two-point-shooting percentage of the year.)

One more set of facts, this one tweeted by Eugene Frenette of the Florida Times-Union: The Wildcats trailed a total of 9:13 the whole tournament.  And although Louisville and Iowa St. tied the Wildcats for a half-minute, they never trailed in any second half of the Big Dance.  Kentucky’s championship victory in the Big Easy didn’t quite turn out to be either, like the ones before, but it was a victory nevertheless.

People are saying that the 2012 Kentucky club, which finishes with a record of 38-2, might be one of the best in recent history.  I don’t disagree.  Fans say this will be the most memorable championship teams of all time.  In school history, maybe.  But the entire starting five will probably be first-round draft picks, and they are all freshman or sophomores.  Plus, John Calipari is their coach.  These guys weren’t recruited to be student-athletes; they were hired mercenaries, and they did their job.  Do you really think these guys will set foot on campus after the victory celebration at Rupp Arena Monday afternoon?

It would be better for the Kentucky basketball program to force players to stay in college till at least their junior years, like the NFL does.  That way a legendary team can become a dynasty, one fans can legitimately remember in awe.  Or, it would be better for the players to allow them to be drafted directly from high school.  Davis is already ready for the NBA.  He and his other Kentucky teammates don’t need college basketball and they don’t care for fancy book learnin’.  Why keep up the charade and make them go to school?  They can be replaced by players who actually want to be there.

Hell, the whole band might break up.  When Calipari was standing on the platform right after Kentucky’s win, he was asked how winning his first championship felt.  “This is not about me,” he sternly emphasized, which is crap, because a gracious coach will at least vomit forth some boilerplate about just being happy to enjoy this moment with the entire team or something.  Which makes me believe one of two things: Either he’s already inquired about job offers in the NBA, such as head coach of the New York Knicks, or he’s afraid that the NCAA will discover some, uh, indiscretions regarding one of these freshman players and, once again, will fly the coop before they come down and strip this championship run from Kentucky’s record books.  We’ll see if anything happens, but if I were a Wildcats fan, I wouldn’t breathe easy until I see Coach Cal at next year’s Midnight Madness raising the banner.

One other thing: I’ve been listening to the police scanner of the Lexington Police Department online on this website called TuneIn.  Eavesdropping on cops dryly reporting incidents of the riots going on on-campus tonight has been voyeuristically thrilling.  (It’s the same droll-and-drama mix that makes Cops such an indelible concept, and a TV show still worth watching from time to time.)  So far I’ve heard a lot of background noise and chanting, couch fires, bonfires, a call for a fire engine, shots fired, and an ambulance coming for a guy who got shot over furniture.  And these guys won!

Contrast that to Louisville fans that reacted to their Cardinals’ defeat by Kentucky in Saturday’s national semifinal: By gathering peacefully in solidarity.  They probably were too bummed to riot, but if you’re setting crap on fire, wouldn’t you do that after your team lost?  The scenes in Lexington and Louisville Saturday night should have been switched, and as anarchic as this sounds, students in Lawrence should be doing what the kids in Lexington are doing now.

Whatever.  Stay classy, University of Kentucky, and congratulations on winning your eighth championship – unless the NCAA takes it away.

Posted by WilliamSou at 2:30 AM

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