With the way this season has progressed, this year’s March Madness should definitely be re-christened as “The University of Kentucky Invitational.” Last night, they began their quest for perfection by dissecting the overmatched Hampton Pirates in their first game of the 2015 NCAA Tournament.
Karl-Anthony Towns, who I call Sasquatch because he has the biggest feet known to mankind, sparkled with 21 points and 11 rebounds. Andrew Harrison added 14 points. Kentucky was rolling, winning by 35 points with almost 13 minutes remaining before coach John Calipari eased up on the forceful body blows that had Hampton wobbling around like Zab Judah in the Kostya Tszyu fight.
After beating Hampton 79-56, the Wildcats are now 35-0. They’re five games away from winning the national championship and becoming the first team to win it all without a loss since the 1975-1976 Indiana Hoosiers.
It has been a great year in college basketball, accentuated by Kentucky’s march through the regular season without a blemish. While some may want to sound the alarm about the game’s overall slow pace, they need to understand that the college game is different than the brand played in the NBA.
Critics will harp on the fact that college hoops is too slow and that if the current pace of play is maintained throughout the tournament, scoring is down about ten points per game, per team, since the 1990-1991 season. The alarmists are pulling their hair out, saying the game has been steadily declining like Martin Lawrence’s movie career.
But the overall beauty of college hoops is that teams play such a wide variety of styles, which makes March Madness such a spectacle.
Everyone assumed, for example, that North Carolina, who looks to push the game’s pace and run at every opportunity, would destroy Harvard, a team that is more methodical and excels through efficient offensive execution and decision-making.
But Coach Tommy Amaker’s Crimson scared the excrement out of every Tar Heel fan in the world last night, nearly pulling off the most shocking upset of the tournament’s opening weekend before ultimately falling at the buzzer, 67-65. And that is the very reason why the NCAA Tournament is America’s greatest sporting spectacle, because the best teams in the country, whether they’re from the mighty ACC or the unheralded Ivy League, has an opportunity to create magical moments that will last a lifetime.
With a chance to make history, each one of Kentucky’s remaining games will be will be viewed and scrutinized like the season finale of Empire.
Dominant teams and dynasties are, contrary to public opinion, great for college and pro sports. As much as we boast about the need for egalitarianism and parity, having a Goliath always raises the stakes and brings more people to the party. People who wouldn’t ordinarily watch, will tune in to root for somebody to beat Kentucky, and that makes each one of their games a mini-national championship in and of themselves.
So, who are these guys? They’re the best thing to happen that could have happened to college basketball because of what they represent. In an era defined by the one-and-done pampered athlete who shows up on campus to merely get his numbers before heading to a tailor to get measured for his NBA Draft suit, this team represents something entirely different.
As Calipari said after they defeated Florida in their final regular season game, “I would tell you what these kids have accomplished, and as young as they are, it’s not winning every game; it’s that they shared…This is a great story for college athletics, for society. Instead of me, me, me, it’s us, us, us.”
Florida coach Billy Donovan, after losing to Kentucky for the third time this year, said in his post-game press conference, “What they’ve done may not happen again for a long, long time. For people that have covered their team, I think it’s really important that people at least reflect in a real positive way of what they’ve accomplished this season. When you look at a team, so much of the team is based on chemistry, how connected they are, how they play for each other, share the ball, all those kinds of things.”
There is a spirit of humility and togetherness that permeates this current incarnation of Kentucky basketball. They might not have the overall individual talent that some of Calipari’s previous teams in Lexington have boasted, like the 2009-2010 Elite Eight team with Eric Bledsoe, John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, or the 2011-2012 team that won the national championship with Anthony Davis, Marquis Teague and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, but this current collective is greater than the sum of its individual parts would suggest.
Yes, they have their fair share of talent and one-and-done prospects, but there is a cohesiveness to this team on the defensive side of the ball which makes them special. While most pundits said that too many good players with large egos on this year’s roster was a recipe for sulking and implosion as a result of diminished individual playing time and an experimental platoon system, these Wildcats have flourished.
The most fun thing about this team, if you are a true basketball anthropologist, is that they’re rather ordinary on the offensive end. But defensively, they’re one of the best college teams ever. Don’t believe me, ask former Kentucky and current Louisville coach Rick Pitino, who said earlier this year, “The best defensive team I’ve seen in the last 20 years, in terms of the way they get over screens, and the physicality of the way they play, they way they block shots.”
When freshman stud forward Karl-Anthony Towns, who is projected to be among the top two picks in the 2015 NBA draft, joined junior Willie Cauley-Stein on the low post, and with long, active, defensively hungry forwards Trey Lyles and Marcus Lee around the paint, Kentucky’s bigs were exceptionally problematic to score against. But it has been the addition of the diminutive freshman Tyler Ulis, who has far surpassed the Harrison twins as the team’s best guard, that has transformed the Wildcats’ defense into a historically great one.
No team forces opposing teams to take lower quality shots. With their size and length, other teams miss close to 66% of the shots they take against them. Their defense gives up only one assist on every ten possessions, which means that other teams cannot find the open man when they have the ball, and that Kentucky takes pride in not only defensing the shot, but also in defending the pass, which is something that a casual fan will never notice.
The hidden beauty in their defensive prowess is that like the 1996 “Untouchables” team at UK, and the fantastic UNLV squads in the early 1990’s, this team will suffocate an opponent defensively, and then transition into a speedy, running, exciting and aggressive offense.
We are watching one the college game’s greatest teams ever, a team that, if they can win it all, will be right up there in the pantheon along with Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s UCLA teams in the late ‘60s, the 1996 Kentucky squad, the Larry Johnson and Stacey Augmon UNLV teams, Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill’s back-to-back Duke title teams in 1991 and 1992 and the outstanding North Carolina team in 1983 with Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins and James Worthy.
And even though it might be seen as the Kentucky Invitational, do not be fooled into believing that winning the title is already a done deal. Before it’s all said and done, Wisconsin, Duke, Arizona, Notre Dame, Villanova, Virginia and Gonzaga could ruin their dreams for a perfect season.
They call it March Madness for a reason. And this year, with Kentucky chasing perfection, the madness gets exponentially better.