Saturday, March 26, 2011

BDT -- Kentucky vs. Ohio State (Mar 26)

YES!!!!!!!!!! WE DID IT!!!!!!!!!

Alright, I had to get my yelling out of the way before I try to speak rationally about this game. Well, to be truthful, I've done a lot of yelling already about the game and I very well may break out into spontaneous outbreaks of joy at various points during this post. Forgive me, please.

Where to begin? Well, I guess I've never been more happy to be wrong about something in my entire life! I truly and honestly thought Ohio State was going to win this game. They were, after all, the number one overall seed, and for good reason. While I thought Kentucky was better than a 4 seed, we certainly didn't seem to be at the same level of Ohio State. Truth be told, we're not! Ohio State, in my mind, is still the best team in the country, but that's what makes the tournament such a beautiful thing! For one night; one glorious night; Kentucky was the best team in the country! And that's all it takes. One game, one night, 40 minutes.

Believe me, I feel for Ohio State, I really do. Last year, the Madness Reaper came for my team and broke my heart. Like Ohio State this year, Kentucky was the class of the tournament last year. We had the best players by far and falling short of even the Final Four was absolutely devastating. True story; I was so upset by the West Virginia loss that I literally forgot about work the next day and was two hours late! Now, the two losses aren't totally similar considering the gap in talent between the winning teams involved. Last year, West Virginia was clearly inferior to Kentucky. This year, Kentucky was only slightly inferior to Ohio State. Even still, it's always difficult to get past a devastating loss like what happened last night. It's one thing to lose, it's another thing altogether to have your heart ripped out. Ohio State; I sincerely feel for you.

That having been said; YEEEEEEESSSSSSS!!!!!!! WE DID IT!!!!!!!!

One night, one game. That's all it took. For 40 minutes on March 25, 2011, Kentucky was the best team in the country. Whether or not we can continue our run and take home the ultimate prize is yet to be determined. For now, I'm content to soak in the glory of our victory; and man, it really does feel good. The best part about it (other than marital bragging rights) is we went out and won the game. Ohio State didn't hand us the game, the refs didn't hand us the game, and we didn't back into the win. Don't let anyone tell you differently. I've already heard the throng of Ohio State fans pinning the loss on poor officiating and/or bad shooting. Look, there were missed calls for sure...on both sides! And yes, the Buckeyes didn't shoot particularly well (32.8%). My plea to you; don't make excuses for your team! Fact: Kentucky was in foul trouble the entire first half and was whistled for more fouls than Ohio State (17-14). Fact: Kentucky fans have plenty of griping they could do as well in regards to the officiating. (Hint: DON'T MAKE EXCUSES FOR YOUR TEAM!). Fact: Kentucky played incredible defense on Ohio State, forcing them to take contested shots. (Hint: DON'T MAKE EXCUSES FOR YOUR TEAM!) Kentucky squared up against the best for 40 minutes and earned the victory. Truth be told, I couldn't be prouder of how we played last night.

At the beginning of this season I would have laughed at the notion of this team beating Ohio State and reaching the Elite Eight. One month ago, mired at 5-5 in the SEC, I might have actually taken a swing at somebody attempting to convince me we would be where we are now. It was simply too ridiculous to think we could overcome the myriad of issues facing the team. Our freshman played like, well, freshman. I never knew what we would get out of Jones/Knight/Lamb in a given night. Sadly, the upperclassmen were even more inconsistent. Darius Miller could look like the best player on the floor for five minutes and disappear entirely for the next ten. DeAndre Liggins had an absolutely unbelievable streak of missed layups that inspired me to yell "YOU GO TO YOUR CORNER AND DON'T TOUCH THE BALL! GO TO YOUR CORNER!" for an entire half. Not joking...ask my wife. Worst of all, Josh Harrellson was getting abused more often than Michael Vick's dogs (Still too early?! Geez!). This in mind, I'd like to own up to a few things really quick.

(Note: This is the part of the post where I rip on myself and look like an idiot. ENJOY!)

I gave up on this team during SEC play. I hate to admit it, but I totally did. Usually, I'm the eternal optimist, always holding out hope even when it's completely illogical to do so. Call it homerism or whatever you will, but I've defended some pretty weak Kentucky teams over the last few years. Heck, I even defended Billy Gillispie when the program was crumbling all around us! It's not that I'm an idiot (well....) it's just that I care too much. I want and expect every season, every team to be amazing. It really is hard to be objective when you care as much as I do about this program. And so, in a complete break from my normal behavior, I essentially waved the white flag on this season. After a string of heartbreaking late game collapses, mostly to inferior teams, it was just too impossible to believe we could make a run.

In addition to my nearly unpardonable sin, I also gave up on Coach Calipari! I've long been skeptical of him as an X's and O's type of coach, but it's hard to argue with his resume. The man simply wins! After a couple of particularly stinging defeats to Ole Miss and Arkansas, I did a podcast with Cutter where I spent a good deal of time crushing Calipari on how poor a job he had done this year. I guess that's why he's making millions coaching Kentucky while I'm sitting under my staircase writing this crappy piece for my crappy blog while listening to crappy music on my crappy iPod. Also, the shirt I'm wearing has a hole in one of the armpits...yep, I'm extremely credible!

I swear to all of you, right here and right now, I will never give up on my team and my coach again. To my credit, I touted them as a potential Final Four sleeper given how they ended the season. And really, that's the magic of what Calipari has done this year. A years worth of fighting and struggling, and look where we are! An extremely young team that's peaking at exactly the right time! Players who started out the season as scrub level players have developed into big time performers. And all of this came to bear last night against the top seeded Buckeyes.

I've been thinking long and hard about the game and I can't really come to a conclusion right now, but I seriously think it might be the best basketball game I've ever watched. No, it wasn't necessarily a 'well played' game. It wasn't the type of up-tempo, fast paced, high scoring game usually associated with greatness, but that doesn't lesson the game at all for me. However, given the teams involved, what was at stake, and the 40 minute drama that unfolded, I'm definitely leaning towards giving it the crown. The largest lead either team had was only seven points and that was very early in the game. Also, there was an unbelievable 19 lead changes. 19!!! What more can you ask for in a basketball game? I'm not exaggerating when I tell you I was literally shaking the entire game. And you can only imagine my reaction when Brandon Knight hit the game winner. Seriously, watch the video at the top of the page and tell me that isn't what March Madness is all about.

Since I've spent a great deal of time ripping on myself, I'd also like to take a second to point out something I got right. Because, after all, I don't get many chances to do this! Here are some quotes from my Sweet Sixteen preview:

"If it weren't for me being surrounded by Ohio State fans, including my wife and in-laws, I would be extremely excited about this game. It should be an excellent matchup and I fully expect a great game. I definitely think Ohio State is the better team, but Kentucky can definitely win this."

"I don't think Sullinger has faced anyone this year who has been equally as strong as he is. There's definitely a huge talent disparity between the two, but Harrellson isn't getting pushed around and he will hold his own on the boards."

"I can guarantee you this, Ohio State has not faced a longer, more athletic backcourt all season. At the very least, Kentucky length should affect Ohio State's shooting and perhaps throw them out of the terrific rhythm they've been in."

"If I were John Calipari, I would single cover Jared Sullinger. Not kidding. I've watched a lot of Ohio State this year and I can safely say there is nobody better at finding the open man out of a double team than Jared Sullinger. They have too many shooters to continually give them open looks. Kentucky has the advantage in the backcourt and you have to give those guys the opportunity to win you the game."

OK, so for this game, this one solitary game, I came out looking pretty good. Of course, I've watched nearly every game both teams have played this year so I should be familiar with the teams! For one, I definitely used definitely twice in the same sentence. That is definitely redundant. For another, WE WON!!!! YAY!!!

Seriously though, both of my main points proved to be spot on. The key to the game plan was the decision to single cover Sullinger. They brought help every now and then, but there was no double team running at him every time he got it on the low block. Believe me, I was so thrilled when I saw this! It's not that I wanted Sullinger to have one on ones in the post, it's that Diebler doesn't freaking miss when he's open! Ever! As for the Harrellson-Sullinger match-up, well, that was definitely a pleasant surprise. As I said, I expected Harrellson to match-up physically, but I couldn't have anticipated what unfolded. When the two were on the floor together, Harrellson clearly outplayed Sullinger. Yes, I know Sully's stats were amazing, but he accumulated a lot of those when Josh was out of the game. Harrellson's ability to match Sullinger on the boards and operate in screen and roll completely changed the game. I'm sure you all heard enough about Harrellson only playing 88 minutes or whatever the last two years. That's all good and well, but I really can't even begin to express how far Harrellson has come this year alone. Like I mentioned before, he was essentially useless at the beginning of the year. At one point, I came up with a convoluted 4 guard system where Jones played center! All because I hated having Josh on the floor! From the Louisville game on, he's been a completely different player and his work during the tournament has likely earned him a spot in the NBA. In my years as a Kentucky fan, I've never seen a player improve as much as Josh Harrellson and I'm going to miss him a ton after this year ends.

Also, lest I forget, he won over many of my friends last night with the world's most incredible overhand throw off Jared Sullinger's chest. WOW! Have you ever seen anything like that before?! I certainly haven't. I've seen a lot of guys throw the ball off of defenders in those types of situations, but I've never seen someone literally try to throw the ball through a defender. One can only hope we see one more 'Harrellson Hurl' before the tournament is over...

The second key was the length of Kentucky's perimeter players. I've only seen a couple quotes from the post game, but I noticed Jon Diebler trying to brush off the notion that Kentucky's defense had everything to do with Ohio State's poor shooting. Look, you can't watch what unfolded last night and not give Kentucky credit for shutting down the perimeter. Ohio State has spent the entire year staring down wide open looks at the basket and I highly doubt they were prepared to deal with this type of defense. The Big 10, while better than I gave them credit for, has no other teams with the type of athletic talent Ohio State and Kentucky enjoy. If you haven't seen a big time defense all year, than it's really tough to be prepared when you finally meet one. It's one thing to shoot over the tiny Northwestern or Iowa defenders, it's a whole different animal to shoot over 6'7" Darius Miller or 6'6" DeAndre Liggins.

Speaking of Liggins, he's another unlikely hero that stepped up big. A big time recruit out of high school, Liggins nearly transferred during his freshman year and was suspended at the beginning of last year. Last night, he looked like the best player on the floor at times! In continuing with my praise of Calipari, it was a smart move to continue feeding Liggins. For one, he had Diebler guarding him...clear matchup problem. For another, the hand-off play was working nearly every time. For whatever reason, coaches tend to not run plays multiple times in a row. Call it over-coaching or whatever...I call it dumb. Calipari essentially said, "we're running this play every time down the floor until you stop it." And they never did...

By this point, you're probably tired of hearing about Kentucky. I know, I know, I'll stop. I'm just a fan who's really excited about his team. Maybe I'm a bit overboard in saying it's the greatest game I've ever watched, but I really think it might be. I honestly don't remember a single time in my sports life when I felt as much joy and elation as when Brandon Knight knocked down his shot and William Buford missed the potential game winner. I yelled and screamed as if I had just won the lottery! As a Kentucky fan, there aren't many times when we're the underdog, and it's definitely fun to be on the right side of an upset. For Ohio State fans, this is a really rough time. Between last night's crushing loss and the Jim Tressel scandal, most of you are probably close to jumping at this point. I don't blame you. For one, the selection committee completely screwed you over. I've harped on this several times before, but Kentucky should not be a 4 seed. We're good. Really good. Last night was a Final Four type match-up and it's a huge disservice to the number one overall seed it had to happen in the Sweet Sixteen. Either way, WE WON!!!! YES!!!!!

Note: Ohio State fans may now hate me and actively look to assassinate me. Also, I'm very excited to hear local sports radio on Monday! WHAT NOW ANTHONY ROTHMAN!!! YOU GONNA APOLOGIZE? YOU GONNA MAN UP?

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