CLEVELAND – Kentucky coach John Calipari was in the locker room at around 9 p.m. Thursday, making last-minute preparations for West Virginia, when some members of his coaching staff burst through the door.
“Oh, my gosh!” one of them said.
“What happened?” Calipari asked.
“They went bonkers.”
“Like, how?” Calipari said.
“Like every which way you can go.”
Calipari’s assistants were referring to Notre Dame, which had just put on one of the most dazzling displays of offensive basketball in the history of the NCAA Tournament.
The Fighting Irish had made 14 of their first 16 shots of the second half against a solid Wichita State team, running, passing and shooting with a relentless precision rarely seen in today’s college game.
Three hours later, Calipari was talking about his own team’s frightening defensive effort in the second semi, in which they eviscerated the Mountaineers, 78-39, in a game that was over in the first eight minutes.
Thus, as night turned to morning in Quicken Loans Arena, it seemed that Saturday night’s Midwest Region final would be a showdown between the best offensive team in the country (Notre Dame) and the best defensive team, the 37-0 Wildcats.
Is that something your players will relish, Calipari was asked?
“Mike Brey and I are friends,” Calipari said. “I know how good a coach he is. As matter of fact, we went to Notre Dame – what was it, two years ago? We got beat by 30. They beat our brains in.
“Matter of fact, their football team rushed the court, if I remember right. We ran out of there! We saw them coming and we ran the other way.”
Actually, the Wildcats lost by 14 that day. Coaches will exaggerate to make a point. Calipari makes it sound as if all 105 members of the Notre Dame football squad rushed onto the floor in helmets and shoulder pads.
He probably felt it was important to remind people that it’s possible to run Kentucky out of the gym.
Beating them is another matter. Thursday’s win was the first time a team doubled its opponent’s score in a regional since 1940. It was so one-sided, it heightened the perception that Kentucky is unbeatable.
Calipari doesn’t want people thinking his team needs added motivation. It’s always useful to find fresh material, especially for a team that has been tested so infrequently. West Virginia freshman Daxter Miles said before the game that Kentucky would soon be 36-1 and didn’t play hard.
Miles didn’t score a point. The Wildcats annihilated the Mountaineers. Afterwards, they said Miles’ comments had added fuel to their fire; several tweeted at him later that night.
“At some point, you have to step in the ring,” Calipari said. “We’ll lift the rope; you’ve got to come in here. I don’t want my team to be angry. I don’t want ’em to be mean, nasty, hateful. It’s not us against the world. It’s play with joy, and love of the game and love of each other. That wins every time. The other stuff turns to fear.”
Kentucky doesn’t fear Notre Dame. But you can bet Cal will tell his players the Irish are good enough to end the dream of a perfect season. When the regional final tips off at 8:49 p.m. Saturday, the ’Cats will be geared up to show the nation that the best D still prevails over the best offense.
Notre Dame will be looking to show there’s still some great offense at a time when scoring is in decline.
“We are carrying the flag for a lot of people,” Brey said. “There’s no question. We’ve recruited a certain way; we’ve built it a certain way. Jay Bilas once said, ‘Your guys play with a free mind.’ That was the ultimate compliment.”
Let’s hope Notre Dame can at least stand up to the ’Cats. The NCAA folks can’t have been pleased with Thursday’s rout. Waiting for the next West Virginia basket was like waiting for the piles of snow to melt at the end of the your driveway.
College basketball has an offense problem, particularly in Kentucky games. I’m not rooting against them. They’re a decent, gifted group of kids who have sacrificed personal stats to win a title (and burnish their NBA credentials).
But close games are what make the tourney great. There’s nothing quite so dramatic as a tight regional final, when a trip to the Final Four is on the line. Christian Laettner’s famous last-second shots were in regional finals.
Please, give us a show.
“Well, I sure hope we can get into a flow,” Brey said. “It’s going to be harder for us to flow. We’re going to go through spells where we don’t score on them, but we’ve got to hold the fort as best we can.”
It’s an old adage that great champions need an opponent to bring out their best. Kentucky’s defense is being compared with the best of all time. It will add to their legend if the Wildcats can smother an offensively brilliant Notre Dame team.
Pat Connaughton, the senior swingman for the Fighting Irish, said it’s like blood in the water when his team gets on a roll. But no team smells the blood like Kentucky when it’s defending at a high level.
They thrive against top opposition. Kentucky beat Kansas, 72-40, holding the Jayhawks to 11-for-56 shooting and 12 points after halftime. The Wildcats led UCLA, 41-7, at the half! They’ve held 17 opponents under 50 points, 25 under 10 assists. Rick Pitino’s Louisville team had one assist.
Thursday was the 10th time Kentucky has held a team under 20 points in the first half. UB fans can stick out their chests. The Bulls scored 38 in the first half and are the only team to lead the ’Cats by five at the break.
So it was no surprise to see West Virginia, a poor offensive team, struggle.
“That’s the best defensive team that I’ve ever coached against,” said coach Bob Huggins. “To beat them, they’d have to have a bad day. You’ve got to create offense in transition, because you can’t score against them in the half-court offense.”
That’s Notre Dame’s dilemma. They rely on ball screens that spring shooters for open jump shots. But Kentucky is great against screening, and they have big men who range out toward the three-point line to disrupt shooters.
The Irish shoot 51 percent from the floor. But it’s hard to feel comfortable on your jump shot when 7-foot Willie Cauley-Stein is running toward you with his arm upraised.
“It was one of our norms, one of the rules when we started together as a team,” said Cauley-Stein. “The speculation was that the way to beat us was by making a lot of threes. We made it a point to chase guys off the three-point line and make them drive toward our bigs.”
ND’s best chance is to force the taller ’Cats to miss shots, get rebounds and run. They need to spread Kentucky out and shoot threes in transition. As Huggins said, if you allow them to set up defensively, you’re dead.
Brey said the Irish aren’t simply looking to put on a show and lose well. They’re a double-digit underdog. But they’re 8-1 against teams that reached the Sweet 16. He said his players are confident and will be “a mess” if they lose.
“We’re the most efficient offensive team in the country,” Brey said. “They’re the best defensive team in the country. I think it’s exciting to see how this thing plays out over 40 minutes.”