(BOISE, Idaho.) — A friend of mine from Boise described his hometown as the most desolate place on the face of the earth. It turns out that he was somewhat over embellishing, as I thought the snowcapped mountains provided for a gorgeously scenic backdrop to the bustling downtown vibe. But the reality is that Boise (pronounced Boy-see, not Boy-zee) IS a bit out of the way and difficult to get to. After three zigzagging flights across the country with a couple of harrowing connections in between, I finally found myself in the capital city of the potato state, following my beloved Wildcats through their improbable date with destiny.
Kentucky’s path through Boise was complex and fortuitous. In the first game on Thursday, it was Davidson versus Goliath as the 12th seeded Atlantic-10 Conference tournament champion Wildcats gave the 5th seeded and big-name SEC Champion Wildcats a run for their money. Davidson players, fueled by the proverbial chip on their shoulder playing against future NBA talent and a raucous “home” crowd, hit 11-33 three-pointers to nearly send Kentucky packing even before the tournament began. Kentucky, meanwhile, went 0-6 from behind the arc, ending their 30-year, 1047 consecutive game three-pointers made streak. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander saved the day with a 19-point, 8-rebound, and 7-assist performance as Kentucky narrowly prevailed 78-73. Kevin Knox led the team in scoring with 25 points on 8-16 shooting from the floor and 9-11 at the foul line.
Up next for Kentucky was a supposed date with the 4th-seeded Pac-12 Champion, Arizona Wildcats. Surprisingly, though, Coach Sean Miller’s team–fresh off FBI allegations regarding payments to star players–folded again like a cheap suit. So instead of the marquee, made-for-TV matchup with the talented mildcats from Tucson, substitute the Buffalo Bulls with their bombastic head coach—Nate Oats. Verbal sparring notwithstanding, when faced with the adversity of bright post-season lights on the big tournament stage, Kentucky’s Kiddie Cats rose to the occasion with a hugely inspiring 95-75 win. Gilgeous-Alexander and Hamidou Diallo played hero in this one, leading the team with 27 and 22 points respectively.
Let’s give John Calipari credit. He did everything he could to give this team a fighting chance—taking on the mantle of coach, mentor, and psychiatrist this season until he was blue in the face. From bringing in renowned sports psychologist Bob Rotella, to his shameless public encouragement of struggling superstars, to his assurance that he wasn’t cracking despite record setting losing streaks, Coach Cal poked, prodded, and pushed his childcats to reach for their full potential. I confessed to Cal that I had my doubts during the losing streak in February. “You doubted me?” he countered. “Why did you tell me? I didn’t know. Now I look at you different.”
In the end, Calipari’s Sigmund Freud impersonation overcame his team’s youth and inconsistency. “This team, the youngest, most inexperienced team I’ve ever attempted to coach and at times the maturity level is—there’s something to be desired there at times,” he lamented right as post-season play began. “I’ve tried to build the whole season towards this, talk about the NCAA tournament all season, but I really don’t know. I have no idea what will happen.”
What happened was Kentucky moves on to the Sweet Sixteen next week, sending all of BBN scurrying to book hotel rooms in Catlanta. The anticipated influx of the Blue Mist together with Virginia’s shocking tournament exit has cleared the way for another improbable Wildcat march to the Alamo. Plus, the Cats are peaking at just the right time—playing their best basketball when it counts the most. “You never know with a young group like this, they’re playing as good as they have all year,” Cal grudgingly admitted. “But they could go out this next game and be freshmen.”
Leaving Taco Bell Arena, I felt the usual sense of exhilaration reserved for fans of teams left in the Big Dance—the immediate relief of surviving and advancing, the wanton excitement of another Final Four run, and the joyful anticipation of perhaps another National Championship. There’s still a long way to go, but I like our chances. We’ve got the X-factor in Coach Cal. Shame on me for ever doubting.
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