We have been blessed this NCAA Tournament. For a lot of reasons, it has been one for the ages, though most of all for the great games, especially in later rounds. And as we reach Easter Sunday, we should see that as a gift – as well as what Kentucky gave us this season, even as their season came to an end last night.
In the national semifinals, the first game proved to be an undercard. Taking nothing away from it, Duke comfortably beat Michigan State 81-61 to advance to tomorrow night’s national championship game. The Blue Devils were never seriously threatened in the second half, taking over the game with a 30-11 run after the Spartans ran out to a 14-6 lead early on. The Spartans never gave up, but basically ran out of gas. It was the worst NCAA Tournament loss in Michigan State’s history.
It was the second game, though, that we will long remember. It was an instant classic, a great back and forth battle, but with added significance because of Kentucky, who entered the game 38-0. It was also a rematch of last season’s national semifinal, one the Wildcats won on a late three-pointer by Aaron Harrison, at the time the latest in a string of clutch shots. And it was the latest tough test for the Wildcats, who survived a valiant effort by Notre Dame a week earlier in the tournament’s signature game to that point.
Last night’s game probably takes the cake. Wisconsin led by eight in each half, only to see Kentucky rally both times. After the second one, Kentucky then went up 60-56, and you could be forgiven for thinking that this might be the run the Wildcats had to take over the game. That’s something that happened many times this season – one run would change the game. Then Wisconsin came back, aided by a couple of shot clock violations at the defensive end, and when they ended a stretch of over six minutes without a field goal, they were on their way.
Wisconsin then went up 67-64. When Aaron Harrison put up an airball with eight seconds left, you had a feeling the Badgers had this one. A few free throws later, it was official: Wisconsin 71, Kentucky 64. And just like that, Twitter exploded.
There will be a lot of focus on Kentucky coming out of this, and that’s unfortunate because Wisconsin earned this one. The Badgers are very good and experienced, led by the national Player of the Year. Bo Ryan can coach. They showed all of that on Saturday night in beating a terrific team. They ran great offense, hit big shots, defended, and didn’t let the Wildcats’ rallies deflate them. It was a textbook study in winning a big game.
This Kentucky team had more than talent. Yes, they are loaded with McDonald’s All-Americans. They turned that into something, though – a run of 38 straight wins to start the season. No team has ever done that. They dominated teams for a while, shutting them down to an unprecedented degree. They survived tough challenges, proving they could overcome in-game adversity. They weren’t winning on talent alone; they showed toughness. They showed plenty of it a week earlier, when Notre Dame had them on the ropes with a trip to the Final Four on the line.
Bo Ryan now has a fun task ahead. After they beat previously undefeated UNLV in the national semifinals in 1991, Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said he had a monumental task ahead, which was to get his team off the high of winning a game like that to get up for the national championship game. That game was more significant because UNLV annihilated Duke a year earlier in the national championship game. Wisconsin has that in front of them now. While this is a mature team and with a coach who has won national championships, this isn’t a trivial point. But it’s a pleasant problem to have.
We will have more on Kentucky later. For now, we should appreciate what we have had to this point, and look forward to what should be a good game – and a real rematch – on Monday night.
The game wasn’t the only thing newsworthy in the arena last night. During the post-game interview, Kentucky was asked a question about Wisconsin center Frank Kaminsky, and Kentucky’s Aaron Harrison could be heard on a live mic softly saying, “F— that n—-” as his hand covered his mouth. Harrison apologized on Twitter for the comment and said he talked to Kaminsky about it afterwards.
Alabama continues in its search for a successor to Anthony Grant, and now that appears to be centering on former NBA player and coach Avery Johnson. ESPN.com reported that the school was set to meet with Johnson on Saturday night, while Murray State head coach Steve Prohm (an alum) and Louisiana Tech head coach Mike White are also thought to be in the mix.
Gonzaga forward Domantas Sabonis made it clear that he will return to Spokane next season. The freshman, who is the son of former NBA big man Arvydas, never seriously considering making the jump after a fine freshman season. That means the Bulldogs, who lose their starting backcourt of Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr., will return their frontcourt pretty much intact.
No men’s games are on tap, though the women have their national semifinals. In place of the games, we invite you to join College Basketball Tonight, which airs from 4-7 p.m. on WNYM AM 970 The Answer in New York, and we will have streaming links here on Hoopville.
Happy Easter everyone.