To call it anything else, is to willfully ignore what 8-time National Championship programs are supposedly all about: Championships.
When you are KENTUCKY and you blow last year’s championship game to a mid-seeded Cinderella with just ONE FUTURE NBA first-rounder compared to your FIVE, and then you return your starting backcourt and add a lottery pick center to the mix and go 38-0…. well then, you BETTER damn win the whole thing.
To channel the still-living ghost of Herm Edwards: “Hellooooo… you PLAY to WIN THE GAME!”
Sorry, Kentucky. CHOKE. Plain and simple.
Not to take anything away from Wisconsin which was the better, tougher, more organized team. But you don’t roll into the Final Four undefeated, then suddenly try give yourself a nice runner-up trophy by gushing about “the ride these kids took our program and our state on” like Coach Cal did after the game.
I don’t mean this as an “I hate them, ha ha!” choke. It’s simply a “matter of fact” choke. These Kentucky players might be the nicest, classiest, sweetest quasi-NBA team ever, as Jay Bilas has been relentlessly selling America on ESPN (although maybe not, more on that in a minute). They might just “play the game the right way” and “play for the name on the front of the jersey, not the back” and all of that good stuff.
But when you roll in as an even-money favorite by Vegas oddsmakers, you better cut down the nets.
Favored teams that fail to close, are judged unflinchingly in sports. Ask the 18-1 New England Patriots. Last I recall, Bill Belichick wasn’t gushing about “the ride these Patriots took us on” during the season.
As long as Coach Cal continues to hang his hat on recruiting lottery picks and making “it’s a wonderful life” speeches when his teams fall short, this will end up being his legacy.
And Now, Some Thoughts on Sportsmanship
There was considerable effort put in by many in the college basketball cognoscenti to brand these Wildcats as nothing less than a band of future lottery pick Mother Theresas. As mentioned above, Bilas was among the most vocal, constantly pushing back against some dog-whistle of Kentucky criticism that perhaps only he could hear.
While nobody really falls in love with an overdog, at least I would agree this year’s Kentucky was one of the least objectionable “super-teams” in recent memory. They played hard defense! (Good for them, you’re supposed to.) They sacrifice for the team! (Good for them, you’re supposed to.)
Then they tasted defeat for the first time. And that “helping old ladies across the street” description (another Bilas standard line) crumbled like your bracket after the first two days.
For starters, the Trey Lyles sucker-slap against Josh Gasser was a pure bitch move. Not only was it after the whistle had blown, and away from the ball, but it was done in an almost practiced and calculated way to try to avoid getting called. Which, in this day and age of replay, IS SUPPOSED TO BE IMPOSSIBLE!
Well, I guess not.
For the billionth time… “how ’bout that replay fans!?” Making sports not-really-any-less-imperfect for over 20 years now.
Then you had several Kentucky players skipping the post-game handshake. Not all of them, Karl-Anthony Towns was shown clearly working his way down the handshake line on TV. But then Willie Cauley-Stein was shown galoomphing off the floor on his own, as did several other Wildcats.
Poor form. Period. Maybe not a federal case, but if you want me to buy into the Bilas-led Kentucky hosannah’s then you need to ace this simple test. They failed.
This would be an outrage, if only racial outrage in America was a two-way street. Can you IMAGINE if Kaminski or any of the white players on Wisconsin had uttered the same thing about say, Karl-Anthony Towns? I’m not kidding when I say that a 60-game NBA suspension (if he’s even draftable after that!) would not be out of the question.
Even if say Kaminski had said “F*** that guy… oh my god” it would be a Cat-5 media shit-storm. But instead, ESPN.com is not even willing to directly mention the word Harrison used, only obliquely referencing the comment was “audible but muffled.”
But hey, ESPN’s own Mike Wilbon claims that he uses the word all the time, as does Stephen A. Smith ON THE AIR, and so I fully expect the usual national opinion makers to rally around this bright, young, sometimes-starving, why-isn’t-he-getting-paid, “student-athlete.”
Bo Ryan’s Finest Hour
Lastly, let’s give some credit to a capital-G “Great” college coach, who isn’t nearly as much of the media darling as the others in this Final Four. Bo Ryan was masterful on Saturday night, as he has been all-along in fashioning the Badgers into a national power.
This year’s team features the perfect confluence of NBA-caliber talent, returning upper-classmen, and a commitment to play disciplined (and sometimes boring) basketball. It also features the collective will and focus of these players to WANT a re-match with Kentucky, and their fearlessness in reversing the outcome.
It also required a masterful gameplan on the floor by Ryan, in which the Wildcats deficiencies were exploited mercilessly. Every defensive switch in the second half was recognized and punished. Offensive liabilities like Cauley-Stein were allowed to have any shot he wanted outside of 10 feet. While momentary lapses on defense by Kentucky were painfully exposed with unguarded three-pointers.
Meanwhile, Calipari’s reputation as a great recruiter and motivator, but a mediocre game-day coach only added another chapter of evidence. Somebody on the CBS broadcast said before the game that Calipari DID NOT SHOW his team any tape of Wisconsin, because he just wanted them to “focus on their own game.”
If this is true, I can’t imagine a more narcissistic piece of coaching malpractice.
For an opponent with some truly unique (even odd-ball) players who prefer certain moves (like Frank the Tank) I would think that a coach would want to tell his players: “No matter what, we are NOT going to let #44 get the ball HERE….” and so on and so forth.
Calipari has been to 5 Final Four’s and won just 1 National Championship. This coming June it will also be the 5th time one of Cal’s players has been the #1 or #2 pick in the NBA Draft (Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Davis, John Wall, Derrick Rose, Marcus Camby).
It doesn’t make Calipari a bad guy or a bad coach, but to call this anything other than under-achieving would be inaccurate.