To view the faces of the Indiana Hoosiers early Saturday morning was to see incredulity on parade. They’d made 52.2 percent of their shots against an opponent that on average had limited teams to 37 percent. They’d made eight turnovers in 40 frenzied-yet-focused minutes. They had, as coach Tom Crean kept noting, scored 90 points.
And they’d lost by 12. They were like Sham in the 1973 Kentucky Derby: They’d run the race of their lives, but they’d run it against Secretariat.
Said John Calipari, Kentucky’s coach: “Indiana played great. We just happened to play a little better.”
Indiana was ready for Kentucky — the Hoosiers had beaten UK in December, so they knew what was coming — and they got big performances from everyone. (Five starters in double figures.) They scored 90 points against a team that hadn’t yielded even 75 this season. As noted, they lost by 12.
It felt close, but really it wasn’t. In the second half, the Hoosiers didn’t have the ball with the chance to seize a lead. They kept chasing, but Kentucky never broke stride. The Wildcats’ best player, who has won several awards for being the nation’s best player, accrued two early fouls and wound up taking only five shots. Anthony Davis finished as his team’s sixth-leading scorer on the night, and it mattered not one whit.
Crean on Kentucky: “As talented as they are, they’re also hard-nosed young men.”
The Kentucky on display in this Sweet 16 was reminiscent of the crew that made off with the nets when last the NCAA tournament graced the Georgia Dome. In 2007 Florida came here and took its second consecutive championship, and those Gators had it all. They were tall and fast and fearless, and they played as if they liked and respected one another. More than a collection, they were a team.
Kentucky has developed a similar mesh, and the Wildcats are — and I don’t say this lightly — even more gifted than those Gators. Forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist hadn’t managed 20 points in a game this calendar year and had mustered only 11 in the first two games of this tournament; he scored 24 points and took 12 rebounds against IU. Doron Lamb, who gets lost amid the ‘Cat stars, scored 21. Darius Miller, who doesn’t even start but who’s the smartest player in the land, scored 19 points on eight shots.
Like the great Gators, these Wildcats don’t care who shoots. The lingering memory of Florida’s second title run was, in a tight regional semifinal against Butler, Corey Brewer throwing the ball to Al Horford on the left block and demanding that he make a basket. (Horfy obliged, converting a three-point play.)
Of the 64 shots the Wildcats hoisted against Indiana, maybe five were less than prime, and two were taken by Davis in the attempt to make up for time he spent on the bench in the first half. Calming himself, he was content to defend and rebound the rest of the night. The collegiate player of the year took one shot over the game’s final 12 minutes, and it was a point-blank follow.
The champion Gators stuck around for their junior seasons after winning the title as sophomores, and they won another without undue strain. There’s no guarantee these Wildcats will win even once, and no one believes they’ll stay intact beyond this season. But let’s say, suspending our disbelief, that this was 1994 and not 2012 and one-and-done careers weren’t yet the rule. Might this have become a team to rival the the Gators of Horford and Noah, the Duke of Laettner and Hurley, the Indiana of May and Benson?
The Wildcats could still lose, but it will take a great team playing its best to unhorse them. (And that’s the thing: Kentucky doesn’t often let an opponent play its best.) And these ‘Cats don’t figure to fall victim to nerves, as has happened with some very good Kentucky teams. The reaction to beating Indiana wasn’t a sigh of relief but an outpouring of genuine happiness. These guys liked what they’d done, and they’d liked doing it.
When it was done, Kidd-Gilchrist and Calipari walked over for a word with the UK radio crew. Kidd-Gilchrist threw his arm around the coach’s shoulders and said, “I love you.”
“I love you, too,” Calipari said, and then the broadcaster Tom Leach asked what he would tell his players when they gathered in the locker room.
Here Calipari, who doesn’t smile all that much, broke out a wide-angle grin. “I’ll say, ‘We’re movin’ on, boys! We’re movin’ on!’”
By Mark Bradley