This Is Our Year… Unless It Isn’t

I remember 1998 like the back of my hand (why no one remembers the front of their hand, I have no idea). It was the year Tubby Smith took the helm of the Wildcats from the then beloved Rick Pitino and led the “Comeback Cats” to a title in his first season in Lexington.

I was 15 at the time and had just went through my parents’ divorce. Despite the fact that their split probably saved both their lives, it was a traumatic experience for a kid already dealing with the awkwardness of Freshman year. Like Alanis, I needed something to cling to.

Enter the aforementioned Wildcats.

That's called peaking too early, ladies and gents.

The 1998 team was far from dominant. In fact, they had a knack for falling behind early and coming back to win late, hence the “Comeback Cats” moniker (we’re pretty literal here). Anyway, something about that team’s run to the title absorbed my attention as sports had never done before. I found myself living and dying, screaming and crying with every made or missed shot. All of it culminated in the happiest ending of all, a National Championship. Little did I know, but my UK fan experience had peaked already.

It’s been 14 years since the Kentucky Wildcats last won an NCAA title. In a fanbase like UK’s, those might as well be dog years.

Over these long years, the passion and expectation my glorious first experience with the Wildcats generated has never dwindled. I’ve spent 14 years living and dying with every shot, as each year ended with a tournament loss including one in the NIT.

This, on the other hand, is called premature celebration.

With each passing season, my disappointment and subsequent rage has grown stronger and more pathetic. I’ve screamed at Rajon Rondo. I’ve murdered Billy Gillispie in my mind.  I’ve broken a remote (or two or seven) over falters and failures that have all culminated in this… Our year.

With the Wildcats in the title game for the first time since I was 15, this has to be the year they close the deal.

Unlike those come-from-behind Cats (I’m just sick of typing it), this year’s UK team has been a spectacle of dominance. With a roster stacked with NBA players and the Player of the Year in Anthony Davis, Kentucky has spent the better part of the year ranked #1 in the country. A title for this team isn’t just possible, it’s expected.

As the day of the title game has finally arrived, the usual combination of dread and excitement is coursing through my blood stream. All the talking heads are picking us to win. Vegas has the Cats favored by 6.5 over a team they’ve beaten once already. People are openly discussing whether this is one of the greatest teams of all time.

All this on our side, and I still won’t believe it until I see it. 14 years is a long time for a young(ish) adult to live with yearly disappointment. It won’t be over until it’s over.

If I step outside myself, I have to think that Kentucky beats Kansas tonight. I have to think that this is their year.

Then I hear that familiar voice of caution chasten me, “Unless it isn’t.”

 

2011-12 College Basketball Preview Series – Kentucky Wildcats

[EJSIC is previewing several college basketball teams. Check out our Duke, Memphis, and Kansas previews.]

The 2011-12 Kentucky Wildcats already have a lot to live up to. They’ve been billed as a Final Four lock, a top 2 team, and perhaps John Calipari’s best shot at a title. No pressure, though…

Last season’s results:
29-9
SEC Tournament Champions
NCAA Tournament East Regional Champions
Lost 56-55 to UCONN in the Final Four

Key departures:
Brandon Knight (35.9 mpg, 17.3 ppg, 4.2 apg, 38% 3PT)
DeAndre Liggins (31.6 mpg, 8.6 ppg, 2.5 apg, 39% 3PT)
Josh Harrelson (28.5 mpg, 7.6 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 61% FG%)

Key returnees:
Terrence Jones (31.5 mpg, 15.7 ppg, 8.8 rpg)
Doron Lamb (28.4 mpg, 12.4 ppg, 49% 3PT)
Darius Miller (31 mpg, 10.9 ppg, 4.6 rpg 44% 3PT)

Notable non-conference matchups:
Kansas (at MSG)
St. John’s
UNC
Louisville

New Faces

As has become the norm at UK under John Calipari, the Wildcats will look to replace last year’s crop of NBA draft picks with another class of highly touted freshmen. Kentucky’s group of Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague, and Kyle Wiltjer has been rated as the #1 class in the country by most services, giving Calipari his third straight class with that distinction.

Fear the Unibrow.

Anthony Davis has been billed as the possible #1 pick in next year’s NBA draft, with his game being compared to Kevin Garnett and Marcus Camby. Davis can thank an unusual growth spurt for his meteoric rise to the top. The lanky forward has grown an astonishing 7 inches since his junior year of high school, and has transformed from an also-ran guard into a one-in-a-million big man. Davis’ combination of center size and guard skills are likely unmatched on the college level.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has the distinction of being one of the few highly rated recruits in this year’s class that is as relentless on defense as he is on offense. The do-everything forward should pick up right where DeAndre Liggins left off, as the Wildcats’ go-to defensive stopper. He’s the type of player that may seem to fade into the background a bit during the course of a game, only to flirt with a triple double by the time it’s over.

Marquis Teague has the ability to drive to the basket at will. The 6′ 2″ point guard’s speed has been compared to that of John Wall. While he’s much more raw than Wall or Knight at this stage, he has all the physical tools to be successful in John Calipari’s system.

Kyle Wiltjer is a true throw-back. While most highly touted recruits have their games compared to one-and-dones, the 6’9″ Wiltjer has had his game compared to Kevin McHale. The versatile forward is an anomaly in Calipari’s recruiting history in that he’s more known for his highly polished skill set than his athletic prowess. It will be interesting to see how his offensive range is utilized in a system predicated on driving to the basket.

The Right Mix

Highly rated rookies are nothing new for John Calipari. What separates this team from the previous two is the blend of diaper dandies and grown mandies (Hey, it rhymed). The Wildcats returning core of Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb, and senior Darius Miller should mesh well with this year’s freshmen.

Miller’s practice battles with Kidd-Gilchrist have already become the stuff of legend around the Bluegrass. These two should push each other for a starting spot all season long, with both seeing comparable minutes.

Terrence Jones has been a force of nature thus far.

We may also be witnessing the metamorphosis of Terrence Jones. I’ll admit that I was among those who wouldn’t have been sad to see the often erratic forward head off to the greener pastures of the NBA. His poor shot selection and inability to finish around the rim were a source of frustration for Cat fans last season. What we’ve seen so far has been nothing short of a complete transformation. Gone is the awkward kid who was as happy with a fade-away as a flush and in his place is a “man on a mission”. Jones has been aggressive and accurate thus far, pouring in 53 points and 16 rebounds in the annual Blue/White scrimmage.

The Wildcats’ combination of perimeter scorers, interior finishers, speed, and versatility should be unmatched outside of Chapel Hill this season.

Where’s the D?

The biggest question mark with this team appears to be whether or not they can mesh their parts into a defensive unit on par with their offensive ability. While the potential is obviously there, we’ve yet to see the intensity without the ball that has become a trademark of Calipari’s teams.

The Wildcats do have a great overall defender in Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and a phenomenal shot-blocker in Anthony Davis. It will be interesting to see who else steps up to give this team a chance to be truly special.

Alone On Point

Marquis Teague is currently the only eligible scholarship point guard on Kentucky’s roster. Mississippi State transfer Twany Beckham will not be eligible until the second semester and former NC State guard Ryan Harrow will not be available until next season.

Should Teague run into problems early, Doron Lamb will be called upon to move from his natural position of shooting guard to run the offense. While Lamb is definitely capable, he has shown weaknesses in the ballhandling and turnover departments.

It will be interesting to see if a lack of depth at the 1 spot causes the Wildcats problems early.

Predictions

This team truly has no ceiling in terms of success. Their unique combination of talent and experience should be enough for a return trip to the Final Four and beyond.

27-3, 14-2 (SEC)
SEC Regular Season and Tournament Champs
NCAA: 1 seed, advancing to the Final Four and Championship Game

Luke Warm Linkage

We’re gonna party like it’s 1998.

Vagabond Joe’s Tournament Predictions/Preview/Opinions/ Garbled Nonsense

Goooooo, Peacocks!!

For the sake of brevity, I won’t go into the supposed/actual snubs the committee pulled this year. But…wow.

Play-in games:
Nobody cares.

East:
In a word: Brutal. I think if OSU gets out of the region, they will win it all. But, anyone who knows me knows my March motto, “Fuck the Big Ten” when it comes to betting/predicting. Whatever I pick a Big Ten team to do in the tournament, be it win or lose, they do the opposite….so, whatever. I hope Syracuse and UNC meet. I think that would be a great game.

Winner: tOSU (Good luck with that, Matta!)

West:
Despite appearances, there are a number of teams here that have the potential to trip up Duke. SDSU, however, is not one of them. Should be interesting to watch. I don’t see UConn going too far because I feel they are too reliant on Kemba Walker. And in the tourney, if he has even and average game…they could be sunk. Can he sustain it for a long run? Who knows, but I would guess if it ends up being UConn/Duke in the final, Duke cake walks through it. Hopefully, I’m wrong.

Winner: Duke

Southwest:
As a Kansas fan, I don’t feel good about this draw. But, then again, I NEVER feel good about Kansas’ draw. It’s Kansas. They find a way to screw up even the biggest gifts. Not that this is a gift. UNLV, Louisville and (God-willing) any one of Purdue, Notre Dame and a healthy Georgetown all scare me. Not piss-my-pants scared. But, realistic concern. If Louisville is hitting even 30% of the 5 million 3′s they take each game, Kansas has no shot.  I love the prospect of facing the Illini, but we’ll have to see if they can get through Vegas. Of course, none of that matters if Kansas can play like they did on Saturday. If they (looking at you, Tyshawn) can keep that up…Houston, here we come.

But, as I said, it’s Kansas.

Winner: Louisville

Southeast:
The only remotely interesting stories here are just how many suckers Jimmer will be able to light up and St. John’s. St. John’s rides its return to any significance whatsoever into the Tourney for the first time since ’02. And I wish Lavin success. I would love for them to get to the Final Four…but mostly that’s just because it would mean that Pitt is not there.

Winner: Pittsburgh

Final Four:
Since I went all 1 seeds save one (the team I root for) I tend to not care about this anymore.  Even in prediction form.  But, just for completists sake…Let’s just say Ohio State over Louisville in the final.  Why not?

General:
I love all of the Coaches v. Former Team scenarios that could play out. Doesn’t necessarily mean good basketball…but it’s interesting nonetheless.

The Southwest wins as far as ridiculous mascots go.  Terriers, Spiders, Peacocks, Zips….Jayhawks, Hoyas, Boilermakers!  Just try and keep up, other regions.  You can’t.

I think that this tournament will reflect this season. Even the best teams are vulnerable and anything could happen. Hopefully, that will make for an exciting couple of weeks. First 2 rounds should be ridiculous.

Small Arms McGee’s Tournament Predictions

East:
As I said in my Selection Sunday Reaction post, Ohio State didn’t get much of a reward for being the best team all season. Kentucky is certainly better than a 4-seed, and Syracuse is battle-tested. I have Syracuse beating Carolina, who won’t be able to shoot well enough to exploit that zone. I think John Calipari has plenty of ammunition to work his “they don’t respect us” angle that worked so well at Memphis, and will knock off Ohio State early. Syracuse beats Kentucky to advance to Houston.

West:
I had been mentally preparing myself for Duke to be set up with another weak bracket, disguised by playing out west. I was right that they’d get San Diego State, but wrong that their bracket would be weak. If Texas can get out of its own way in the first two games, they could be a challenge for Duke. And if UConn gets there, Nolan vs. Kemba would be fit for pay-per-view. I have K finally getting some revenge against Calhoun for 1999 and 2004, and getting the Lubed Evils back to the Final Four. If Duke gets there, people like me won’t be able to say they got a cakewalk this time.

Southwest:
The committee doesn’t set up made-for-TV moments huh? Right.  We all look forward to Bill Self vs. Illinois in the second round (assuming Kansas finally exorcises its “first-round opponent that start with B” demons).  I have Kansas beating Louisville to get to the Elite Eight and Purdue slipping by Notre Dame. (As an aside, I have a rule these days that requires me to never trust Vanderbilt or Notre Dame in the NCAA Tournament. If my predicting ability in the past is any guide, you’ll see Vandy and Notre Dame square off in the Elite Eight.) Anyway, Kansas skates by Purdue relatively easily to get to the Final Four.

Southeast:
The committee thought they had put together a bracket even Pitt couldn’t screw up.  Clearly, they underestimate Pitt’s abilities to avoid the Final Four. This region is the home to my biggest upsets – which are relatively few and far between in my bracket this season. I have Belmont beating defense-averse Wisconsin, then beating Utah State to advance to the Sweet Sixteen where Pitt finishes them off. On the other side I have Florida taking out BYU. (Upset alert: Gonzaga upsets a dinged-up St. John’s team before falling to the Stormin’ Mormons.) Florida edges Pitt to reach its first Final Four since 2007, and more importantly, denying Pitt its first Final Four since the FDR administration.

Final Four
Duke hits its threes and beats Syracuse.  Kansas races past Florida.  Kansas’ frontcourt proves too much for the Plumlees in an intriguing matchup between Coach Hair Dye and  Coach Toupee.  Kansas is your 2011 national champion, and Carolina fans won’t give a shit about Roy Williams wearing a Jayhawk sticker this time.

Enjoy the tournament.  And remember:  never, under any circumstances, pick an ACC team not named Duke or UNC to advance past the second round.

 

Selection Sunday: Small-Armed Reaction

The NCAA Tournament field was unveiled last night.  Thank God Charles Barkley was there, because his lack of professionalism and preparation made the committee look a little closer to competent by comparison.  Look,  I know TNT and TBS are carrying some games this week – and I’m happy about the additional coverage – but why do we need Chuck talking about “that Jimmer kid out west” and making it painfully obvious that he did zero prepwork for his One Shining Moment?  I don’t have a problem with Ted Turner wedging himself into the March Madness mix.  Just swap Chuck out for Ernie Johnson and things might be okay.  He was turr’ble last night.

Anyway, on to the field itself.  Obviously, there are some much-discussed head-scratchers like UAB and VCU.  Maybe you can make a case to say Colorado deserved a spot.  But I don’t get too hung up on “who’s in, who’s out” because the bubble was simply awful, so trying to field a group of 68 teams this year must have been a real challenge.  This was clearly not the year for expansion.  If anything, last night made the case for contraction.

The bigger problem I have with the committee is similar to what we saw last year.   Teams continue to be poorly seeded (this year more than last) and regions are wildly unbalanced (not quite as bad as last year).  Last year, you’ll recall the outrage about the supposed third 1-seed Duke being given a very advantageous bracket, while overall 1-seed Kansas received the most challenging region.  When Duke cut down the nets in Indianapolis after squeaking by a feisty Butler team, many pointed to their relatively easy path as being a major reason for their title run.  Similarly, Pittsburgh (again, the third 1-seed) seems to have received the rock-star treatment this season.  Pitt’s draw may not be quite as ridiculous as what 2010 Duke received, but it’s still pretty remarkable when you look at it beside the other three regions.

Seeding was the real story this year.  Kentucky trounced their opponents in the SEC tournament and finished their season on a very strong note.  Their struggles on the road during the heart of the season were well-documented, but it seemed the Wildcats were putting it together at the right time, closing the season at a very high level.  The committee saw it differently, as Kentucky received a 4-seed in the toughest region of all, the East.   (Oh, and as a bonus, they face the Ivy League again, so get your “hicks vs. pricks” jokes ready, my fellow Elitist Jerks!)

To make it to the Final Four, Kentucky would have to go through #1 overall seed Ohio State and possibly Syracuse or North Carolina.  Compare that to Florida, the team Kentucky boatraced Sunday afternoon to take the SEC tournament title.  The Gators received a 2-seed in the aforementioned and relatively soft Southeast region.  Kentucky ended the season #7 in the Pomeroy ratings, while Florida was #19.  Both are quality teams, but the seeding gap (especially factoring in regional strength, location, etc.) is hard to overlook.

Texas is another team who ended up a 4-seed despite having a very strong season.  Granted, they may be the anti-Kentucky, peaking in the middle of the season and closing meekly.  But still, they had a quality resume and finished #4 in the Pomeroy ratings.  Their path?  A match-up with Duke in the Sweet 16, followed by (if chalk holds up) San Diego State or UConn.

Or how about Washington?  They end the season #15 in the Pomeroy ratings and draw a 7 seed, potentially playing recently-red-hot-but-now-entirely-uncertain North Carolina in Charlotte in the second round.  It almost makes you believe that “east coast bias” crap those crunchy hippie nutjobs talk about.  Almost.

Oh, and while we’re in the East, how about the reward Ohio State received for being the best and most complete team in college basketball all season.  32-2, #1 in Pomeroy, and they get North Carolina, Syracuse, and Kentucky.  And let’s not overlook a potential matchup with a legit George Mason team in the second round.  If the Buckeyes make the Final Four, they will look back and know they fought for it.

Speaking of Big Ten teams, how in the world did some of these squads receive such inflated seeding?   Penn State and Michigan State as 10 seeds?  Illinois as a 9?  I’m starting to wish Jim Tressel would fire Gordon Gee and Gene Smith.

Finally, I’d like to take a moment to laugh at Seth Greenberg.  He routinely schedules  a quilted Northern® soft non-conference slate, hangs around .500 in the ACC, and then cries on the second Sunday night of March.  Back in the day, 8-8 or 9-7 in the ACC would be certainly good enough.  But that was when the ACC had more than three really good coaches.  Look, I know the Hokies had some really terrible injuries and without them Virginia Tech would probably be safely in the Big Dance.  But stuff happens, and you have to adapt.  His team fell short yet again, and we all expected Seth to complain.  The difference this year was that Greenberg didn’t stop at hoarse-voiced whining.  He essentially floated the theory of some sort of anti-Virginia Tech conspiracy.  Greenberg said:

“Just disappointed. You almost wonder if someone in that room has their own agenda and that agenda doesn’t include Virginia Tech. Just plain and simple. I totally wonder it, if someone in that room has an agenda. The explanation was so inconsistent with the result that it was almost mind-boggling. I guess they even brought up our non-conference schedule. Kansas State, Purdue, Oklahoma State, UNLV, Penn State, St. Bonaventure that was supposed to be big and Mississippi State that was projected to win the SEC. I’d say that’s a pretty significant slate and challenge. So they must not have looked at it very closely. But I guess they did. I feel for these kids. Doesn’t take away from what we accomplished this year … but it’s extremely disheartening. You would hate to think that politics would be involved, but it makes you wonder.”

First of all, Seth, if you think the committee is capable of organizing and carrying out a conspiracy, you’re giving them too much credit.  Second, play somebody.  Third, get your guys motivated for games against teams NOT from the Triangle.  Fourth, there’s a phrase you need to become familiar with: “Man’s game, bitch.”

When play starts this week, most of what you have just read will no longer matter.  As I’ve said before, the NCAA tournament is the greatest event in sports, and no matter how hard they try, the committee just can’t ruin it.  So, call in sick Thursday and Friday, crack open a beer at 11 a.m., and root for your favorite team and your Cinderella pick.  And by all means, check in at EJSIC for more tourney coverage (from the other guys) and nonsensical, self-absorbed drivel (from me).