Kentucky's tale of two teams finally meets in the middle

Jamie Squire

The Kentucky team that lost 10 games wasn't the same one playing in the national championship game on Monday night.

ARLINGTON, Texas — Kentucky survived as long as it did in the ever-fragile NCAA Tournament because no matter how improbable a winning outcome ever seemed in any game’s final minutes, the Wildcats always had a chance. It would be unfair to characterize their loss to Connecticut as running out of luck, because luck had nothing to do with it. The Huskies won because for the first time in the tournament, Kentucky’s opponent never gave them a chance.

Part of that is on the Wildcats, too, putting up a strange non-fight in the final minute. When James Young scored with 1:08 left to bring Kentucky within four, the Wildcats still had a foul to give. At that point, Kentucky had never led, and even though UConn had no interest all tournament long in missing free throws, it’s a familiar way to milk a game’s final moments and allow the most time possible for something silly to intervene. It felt like months ago, but the Saint Louis Billikens started fouling when they was down 14 with about five minutes left and eventually took North Carolina State to overtime and won in the round of 64. Basketball is unique because of how often possessions change and how a team can leverage its defense to put together a run. No sport other than Mario Kart puts that much pressure on a comfortable leader to make it through the final lap, even if it’s as simple as making free throws or keeping a green shell handy to thwart attacks.

It would have made sense for Kentucky to go for a quick steal and then give its final foul with 1:08 left. Instead, Aaron Harrison waited 14 seconds to give a non-threatening foul, and then Kentucky let 30 more seconds bleed, unsuccessfully going for a steal somewhere in the interim, before finally sending Connecticut to the foul line with 25.1 seconds left.

Questioning Kentucky’s late-game moxie feels strange. Its persistence came to define a team that spent all season looking for some kind of identity, floundering through a bad conference before John Calipari distilled his team down to its best skills — using its size and athletic advantages to drive in to the lane, rebound and force teams to take jump shots — and rebuilt his team in the five days between the regular season and the SEC Tournament to hyper-focus on strengths proven in 31 games rather than how he hoped it would develop over the final nine.

What resulted was a Kentucky team in the postseason that looked nothing like the one that tied with Georgia for second in the SEC. The negative traits that most defined the dregs of the nightmare season that seemed inevitable — mostly an indifference that manifested itself during the year in the way the team would never learn from those terrible losses like they maintained so often they would — vanished.

All the Wildcats needed was a chance, and they didn’t know what to do when UConn never gave them one.
The team that played 239 arresting minutes during the tournament, right up to its de facto concession, was so confident, never wavering when faced with considerable deficits in four straight games — Wichita State in the round of 32, then Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin — against teams all ranked in KenPom.com's top 10. Andrew Harrison said UK didn’t like playing from behind, but it could manage; defensive-specializing reserve Dominique Hawkins said Kentucky may as well spot teams 10 points to start so they could go ahead and start the comeback.

When those final seconds were slipping away Monday and packing tape was being ripped off boxes of hats near UConn’s bench, all that magnificence evaporated. All the Wildcats needed was a chance, and they didn’t know what to do when UConn never gave them one. The Huskies were ranked outside KenPom’s top 200 in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage, and they kept Kentucky, the second-best offensive rebounding team in college basketball, off the glass and forced the Wildcats into their fourth-worst offensive rebounding percentage of the season.

It wasn’t as surprising that Kentucky lost as it was to see Kentucky lose, even if the Wildcats had already done that 10 times this season. The team now immortalized for coming so close was not the same team as the one that lost all those games. Reconciling the two is tough, but it’s better than chalking it up to luck. The second-place SEC team that lost at South Carolina on March 1 was not the same team playing for a national championship five weeks later. That first team would never have had a chance.

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