Indianapolis — John Calipari is a really good coach. Let’s get that out of the way. He recruits better than anybody, Nick Saban included. He gets McDonald’s All-Americans to play as a team. He has won one national championship and has taken teams to six Final Fours. That said …
He’s not the world’s greatest tactician. In 2008, his Memphis Tigers had a nine-point lead inside the final two minutes of the NCAA championship game and saw Kansas snatch the title. On Saturday, Calipari’s unbeaten Kentucky Wildcats had a 60-56 lead inside the final six minutes and — pause for effect — committed three consecutive shot-clock violations.
I doubt any team in the history of the NCAA tournament — not even the lowest of 16th seeds — has ever committed three consecutive shot-clock violations. Somehow the 38-0 Wildcats, who were being mentioned as one of the greatest teams ever, managed to come undone at the very moment they seemed to have seized the game.
They didn’t miss free throws. They didn’t throw the ball away. On three game-changing possessions, they just couldn’t manage a shot that hit the rim. (Actually they managed to hit the rim once. Then they took the offensive rebound, fooled around a while longer and were called for another shot-clock violation.)
Said Calipari: “We didn’t slow it down. We were trying to post the ball, run the pick-and-rolls, the stuff we were running. They crowded a little bit, the guys got a little bit tentative. We were trying to still play.”
Got that? The nation’s No. 1 team was looking to score, as opposed to kill time, and not only couldn’t make a shot but couldn’t hit the rim. How does that happen? Did the pressure of being undefeated finally unnerve the Wildcats? If so, why did Kentucky override a nine-point deficit in the first half and an eight-point deficit in the second? Why did they wait until they had Wisconsin — for the first and last time all night — in retreat to fold?
Full credit to the Badgers: They did what Notre Dame almost did in Cleveland but didn’t quite. They outplayed Kentucky for most of the game and were in position to win. But these Wildcats were never a great offensive team, and that was ultimately their undoing.
Andrew and Aaron Harrison, the twin guards, were clearly unsure how to attack Wisconsin’s sagging defense. (It looked like a zone but might not have been.) So Calipari left them out there to fend for themselves, and for once they couldn’t. This is where a coach has to calm his men and restore order. Instead Calipari allowed the game to spiral back into Wisconsin’s lap.
Maybe it was just the law of averages catching up to the ‘Cats, who’d had five close calls en route to 38-0. And Kentucky fans will insist Nigel Hayes’ tying putback should itself have been a shot-clock violation. But here’s the bottom line:
You’re the nation’s No. 1 team. You have a four-point lead with six minutes remaining. You score four points over those six minutes. You commit three consecutive shot-clock violations. You deserve whatever you get, and what Kentucky got was its first loss of the season — and its last.
From myajc: Unbeaten no more — Wisconsin topples Kentucky.