Tonight was supposed to be all about Kentucky’s quest for immortality, its coronation for a 40-0 season.
Many saw Kentucky as untouchable. A team with nine McDonald’s All-Americans and whose second wave could probably have come close to making the Final Four. A team that longtime college and pro coach Larry Brown absurdly said could make the NBA playoffs in the Eastern Division.
But Saturday is why they play the games. Mighty Kentucky, even with its collection of 7-footers and pro prospects at every position and even on the bench, was taken down by the efficiency and execution of Wisconsin.
This was hardly a fluke. Wisconsin had the length, toughness and experience to overcome the still-wet-behind-the-ears Wildcats, who were relying mainly on freshmen and sophomores to make their most important plays.
Wisconsin also had the Player of the Year Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker, a 6-9 forward with point-guard skills. Its supporting cast was physical and calm in demeanor.
Wisconsin held the lead most of the game and was the deserving winner. The telling stat was rebounding, where the Badgers whipped the gargantuan Wildcats by 12, 34-22. Rebounding is all about effort and toughness. Just ask Dennis Rodman, who for all his weirdness enjoyed a long NBA career just by playing harder than his opponents.
Kentucky’s fall was harder than Humpty-Dumpty’s. Wildcat fans took to the streets to set fires. Stories abounded how a group of student-athletes were ruining their businesses, who had projected huge profits — hundreds of thousands — off the sale of championship merchandise. These kids aren’t mythical gods, they’re supposedly students who happen to play basketball and provide millions of dollars of revenue for the state.
I really thought Kentucky would pull it off. But when Wildcat coach John Calipari said in one of his pregame interviews that he really didn’t watch film of Wisconsin, I knew they might be in trouble. Wisconsin obviously watched a lot of film on Kentucky, as it took away everything the Wildcats like to do. Bo Ryan coached circles around Calipari, whose switching defense was exposed by Kaminsky and Dekker for mismatches against the Harrison twins and the other Kentucky guards.
I’m curious to see what’s ahead for Kentucky. Calipari’s all-for-one, one-for-all philosophy worked for 38 straight games, then came up short. I have to give him credit for taking a bunch of superstars and making them check their egos at the door. You never once heard any complaining, though now we’ll probably have a player or two say that if he had played more minutes, the team might have won.
Kentucky could have as many as eight or nine players declare for the NBA although Karl-Anthony Towns is the only player who looks like a sure-fire star. Willie Cauley-Stein is offensively challenged, while the Harrison twins’ only advantage in the college game was their size, but the NBA is full of 6-6 guards. Trey Lyles could be a star in time since he’s 6-10 and shoots it well from the outside. The others are all projects.
I’m sure Calipari will just back up the truck and load up with more McDonald’s All-Americans. Players go to Kentucky solely to puff up their NBA resumes. They know Calipari has an NBA background and they’ve seen how high his players go in the draft and the millions he can make them.
Now we’re talking about Wisconsin and Duke tonight for the national championship. How in the world do the Badgers come down off the high of spoiling history? They expended an incredible amount of physical and emotional energy to defeat the Wildcats, while Duke skated by Final Four long shot Michigan State.
Maybe beating Kentucky was Wisconsin’s national championship. While the Badgers certainly won’t say that, I have a feeling they’re going to struggle to get started against Duke. The Blue Devils are peaking. They have two efficient guards and perhaps the top pick in the upcoming draft in Jahlil Okafor. They also have Coach K on the bench, who knows a thing or two about winning championships.
I’m going with Duke tonight, 73-67.