The mythical map pointing the way to Kentucky’s demise is a unicorn
It unclear exactly when the narrative began. Perhaps it was in December after Kentucky put UCLA into the Maytag and hit “spin cycle.” Or maybe it was right after two David Blaine-like escapes against early SEC opponents. But, soon thereafter, a game involving the Kentucky Wildcats couldn’t begin until the “blueprint” for taking them down had been drawn up, discussed and disseminated to the basketball world at large.
The latest was said to be authored by Mick Cronin’s Cincinnati Bearcats. It involved physicality and intimidation — followed closely by the words “rock fight.”
When the Bearcats came up short, but escaped total annihilation by turning the game into a grind-it-out half court affair, the media architects were hard at work redesigning, refining. Cincinnati was the latest in a slew of pretenders who had discovered the holy grail for taking down mighty Kentucky they said; and Bob Huggins’ Mountaineers were going to add another column to that blueprint in the form of a suffocating press — and create their own shining moment.
West Virginia rushed out of the darkness of the corner vomitorium of Quicken Loans Arena roaring the words “Hell, Yeah!” as if they were going to storm the ramparts, burn down Big Blue Nation’s village and take their women and children to boot.
And then they threw the ball up in the air at mid-court.
It surely reminded some UK fans of the UCLA dismemberment back in December. A more accurate sports comparison might be a night in Atlantic City in 1988, when Mike Tyson heard the opening bell and raced across the ring and turned Michael Spinks into jello. That was over in 91 seconds. Kentucky took a little longer to do the same to the Mountaineers, maybe 8 minutes. But you get the point.
Several days ago, I wondered if Kentucky needed a chip on their shoulder to make this final 6-game push to the championship. A loss seemed the most obvious tool to make that happen. Then Daxter Miles explained to me there was another way: talk some serious trash.
It wasn’t the “they’ll be 36–1” proclamation that was so bad. It was the follow up: “they don’t always play hard” and certainly “not has hard as we do.” It got worse. Tarik Phillip, a guard from the tough Canarsie section of Brooklyn, went further: “They don’t really rebound the ball as well as we thought they did for having big dudes.”
Welp. Don’t poke the bear.
If you come from a hardscrabble background, you know to never show fear. Bravado and anger is the always-ready facade to mask a potential weakness, such as doubt; and yes, fear. John Calipari knows:
“I want you to play with joy. Play with joy. Have fun. Joy always beats anger, negativity. ‘What’s the worst thing I can say?’ versus “How can I build something up? How can I make this (positive)?’ I just told them about it. Just play.”
History can be a great teacher if one lets it. Daxter Miles and his teammate’s unfortunate remarks reminded me of a golf writer with the Atlanta-Constitution, who, in reviewing the chances of the favorites in the upcoming 1986 Masters, penned the following:
“Nicklaus is gone, done. he just doesn’t have the game anymore. It’s rusted from lack of use. He’s 46, and nobody that old wins the Masters.”
Somehow, that quote found it’s way on to the Nicklaus family refrigerator.
As Jack walked the fairways on the back nine past Amen Corner and into history, the roar of the crowd ringing in his ears with every putt he would drain, the writer’s words rang even louder. And Nicklaus thought:
“My clubs aren’t rusty. And I’m not done.”
Don’t poke the Bear.
Sports are full of such life lessons. But I digress.
At times during the game, it was clear the Mountaineers couldn’t even see the basket. When they finally did, the rim must have looked the size of a dime.
It’s silly to say, but nevertheless the scoreboard plaintively said Kentucky had scored enough points in the first half to go scoreless in the second half — and still win. They out-rebounded the Mountaineers by 12. West Virginia, number one in the nation in steals, could only force Kentucky into 10 turnovers. That surely disappointed Coach Calipari, who surprisingly likes to see his team have a moderate amount of turnovers because too few mean the team is playing much too cautious with the ball.
Speaking of Calipari, he is relentless on the sidelines. At the 12:00 minute timeout of the second half, he was coaching as if the team was down six instead of up 35. This, more than anything might be why the Cats are so, so good. The endless push of Calipari, the human lightning rod. The refusal to let any of them become anything less than they are capable of being. Don’t be fooled by the fancy suits. He mines the potential from his players with a lunch pail and hardhat style all those folks in West Virginia can probably understand better than most. Especially now.
You wonder what Maryland was thinking? “Hey, we could’ve done that.” Or, more likely, “There but for the grace of God go I.” One can see UCLA, sitting in a hotel room somewhere in the Houston burbs, nodding solemnly.
Now you wonder what the Fighting Irish are thinking because they aren’t saying much. They’ve learned the lesson, courtesy of the Mountaineers— don’t poke the bear. We do know what Kentucky’s thinking. Play hard. Play your best. Don’t play with anger. Play with joy.
You got a blueprint to defeat that? Let’s see it.