Mauled in Memphis—By John Huang
I’ve made no bones about the fact that I do not like the University of North Carolina. Everything about the dreaded Tar Heels reeks of high-browed elitism. All the rhetoric about keeping their coaching fraternity “in house,” the hubris of “the Carolina Way,” and jokes about God being a Carolina fan because he made the sky “Carolina blue”—it’s all enough to make any Wildcat fan immediately upchuck. Throw in the fact that back in the 80’s, Kentucky and Carolina jockeyed back and forth for supremacy in total NCAA victories and you can see why Carolina is public enemy number one in my book. Ask anyone over forty and they’ll be sure to agree.
That’s also why this most recent mauling in Memphis has nearly sent me over the edge. It’s bad enough that this much-anticipated season has ended and we suddenly realize there are kids to attend to, jobs to refocus on, and grass to mow. But to lose in that fashion to the most hated team in powder blue is enough to trigger unexpected kidney stones. It’s painful, purulent, and just NOT possible. Someone please wake me up!
The reality is that North Carolina defeated Kentucky 75-73 in the finals of the NCAA South Regionals, avenging an earlier regular season loss in Las Vegas. The Wildcats, coming off an impressive 86-75 victory over UCLA in their Sweet Sixteen rematch just a couple of days earlier, were victimized by some brutal officiating. De’Aaron Fox was saddled with two early fouls and fell 26 points short of his record setting performance from the other night. Malik Monk also picked up two quick fouls in the first half and subsequently ended his career with a whimper.
The game wasn’t quite the Ali versus Frazier that everyone expected. It was simply another tournament loss against a talented and experienced team that beat the Wildcats badly on the boards. “This is the end of the year now,” Coach John Calipari said presciently before the start of the tournament. “This is like when you lose, you fall off the cliff.” Kentucky fell off the cliff.
It’s always difficult writing these season-ending columns. Only four times in my fifty-plus years of fandom has there been anything other than bitter disappointment. Emotions remain high, nerves are frayed, and passion still overflows. What one pens immediately after a heartbreaking tournament loss may not mirror thoughts garnered after an adequate time of reflection. Any True-Blue fan always thinks that this is the year, and when the year surprisingly vaporizes before your very eyes, who knows what words can suddenly leak out of your mouth.
This year was the best of times and yet, it was the worst of times. An Elite Eight appearance is never anything to sneeze at. The team was young, but it got better over the course of the season and they were one of the legitimate championship contenders as the tournament wound down. They overcame issues such as trust, discipline, toughness, and empowerment to bond together as a cohesive unit and make us all proud. Kentucky seniors Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins rose to the occasion and did everything True-Blue fans could have asked of them. Game after game, Fox and Monk formed one of the most formidable back-court dynamic duos in the history of the program and Adebayo showed throughout the year that he has the chops to play in the NBA. Coach Cal didn’t just roll the ball out in practice, he actually coached them up in games as well.
And yet, for the second straight year, Kentucky fell short of the championship weekend. Calipari’s remarkable run of Final Fours has hit a definitive speed bump and we owe it to ourselves to question why. No longer can BBN blindly subscribe to his “one-and-done” recruiting philosophy.
I’m not advocating for Calipari to quit recruiting elite talent. I, more than anyone, love the yearly unbridled expectations of the #1 recruiting class coming together and winning the championship. I cherish being in the hunt every single year and certainly don’t take winning for granted. I like getting the best players. But Cal has only one title to his credit and that was when he had Anthony Davis—a transcendent player many regard as the greatest to have donned the Kentucky uniform.
It’s not so much Cal’s “players first” mentality that rankles so many, but the thing that gets everyone’s goat is his stubborn insistence on putting NBA contracts ahead of teamwork, Kentucky pride, and national championships. He claims they’re not mutually exclusive but it’s unrealistic to expect players to focus solely on “team” when their coach is always referencing their future NBA riches. Who cares about Devin Booker scoring 70—please focus more on Isaac Humphries and Dominique Hawkins saving your bacon.
I’m sure it’s all part of his recruiting pitch, but Calipari needs to tone down the NBA rhetoric. After all, he’s paid to coach college basketball, not–as he claims–to end generational poverty. Five first-round draft picks do not constitute the biggest day in Kentucky basketball history. No, when Kentucky wins National Championship #12 and supplants UCLA as the all-time leader, that will be by far the biggest day. You know it, I know it, and now let’s all hope that John Calipari knows it. See you next season.
Final note to NCAA: Please get some new refs.
This blog posting was originally submitted as a UK Basketball Column for Nolan Group Media publications.
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