SOUTH BEND, Ind. - At halftime of Kentucky’s 64-50 loss at Notre Dame Thursday night in the Joyce Center, the public address man announced that the school was now home, for the first time in NCAA history, to the top-ranked football team in the land, and the number one graduation rate in major college athletics.
Yes, Notre Dame is one of those academic schools. And the Fighting Irish certainly schooled the Wildcats in one of the worst losses in the John Calipari Era at Kentucky.
The 50 point-effort by the Cats was the lowest point total UK has managed under Calipari, eclipsing the 55 scored in the loss to Connecticut during the loss in the 2011 Final Four. And the margin of deficit was the second-largest (UConn again, this time during the 84-67 drubbing in Maui that same season).
But that’s not to say it was a complete waste of time spent in a place that fairly screams academia. If you put out a call to central casting and asked for a college campus, the University of Notre Dame is likely what you’d get - Golden Dome, Touchdown Jesus and all.
And right now it rivals Tuscaloosa, Alabama, as the center of the football universe. But the Irish have been known to slay the occasional basketball dragon as well. Former head coach Digger Phelps developed a reputation for pulling off upsets, and he was in the house on this night, in his role as analyst for ESPN.
The fans stormed the court after the victory over the 8th-ranked Wildcats. It was a workman-like effort by the Irish who, according to UK guard Julius Mays, recovered from a quick 12-6 Kentucky opening run and managed to coerce the Cats into playing their brand of basketball.
“I think we came out a little shell-shocked,” he said. “We started playing their game, which is slow-down, half-court. I think we’re more of an up-tempo team.”
Indeed, the Wildcats forced just 11 Irish turnovers and managed to convert them into only six points. Nothing came easily for Kentucky, whose offense was beyond stagnant until it was too late, when Mays began finding success beyond the arc (4-of-7 triples, a team-high 16 points).
But Nerlens Noel had to work for every one of the 10 points he scored (along with seven rebounds). And Alex Poythress, sidelined for nearly 15 minutes in the first half with foul trouble, finished with only three points, sinking his only field goal attempt and grabbing one rebound each half.
Archie Goodwin never found room to work. Notre Dame coach Mike Brey later said the Irish were dedicated to making Goodwin’s path to the basket a difficult one, and they succeeded. It was almost as though the freshman guard was negotiating a mine field on his way to the hoop. Goodwin was just 1-of-7 from the field for three points, although he did tally five assists.
The dimes were vital, because Goodwin once again got the majority of minutes running the offense and he didn’t look comfortable. Prodigal point guard Ryan Harrow did return, but he was ineffective in nine minutes. Kentucky needs Harrow to re-claim that spot, thus allowing Goodwin to return to his natural position of off-guard, if the Cats are going to have any shot at accomplishing their goals this season.
And they’ll need more effort than they got Thursday night.
“What disappointed me was that we didn’t compete,” Calipari said. “They beat us to balls, they beat us around the basket. We didn’t execute. We didn’t play together.”
It was a laundry list of sins that, given the electric atmosphere, was certain to result in Kentucky’s second loss of the young season. The first came to Duke, but this UK squad looked nothing like the team that lost to the Blue Devils in Atlanta.
“We were out of control. We were shooting the ball off shot clocks on drives,” he said, a reference to a Goodwin attempt that, uh, didn’t go so well. “My whole thing is, you can still defend and compete. Two teams just battling each other, and Notre Dame wins. That’s not what this was. This was Notre Dame throwing around Kentucky and winning by as many as they needed to win by.”
It costs nearly $60,000 a year for an undergraduate to attend Notre Dame. What this trip to South Bend cost the Wildcats was some pride (losing that way on national TV, Dickie Vee courtside and all) and another L.
But, like a degree from a prestigious academic institution, it should pay off later in life (perhaps beginning Saturday). If the Cats learned from this lesson, they’ll realize that it will take far more hard work and attention to detail than they exhibited in this one.
And the Big Blue Nation, if it didn’t already know, found out that while this may be a fantasy team on paper, a sub-par effort at any time can result in a nightmare of a performance – especially on the road, against a gritty, experienced team which, according to the school’s graduation rate, is pretty smart.
(Dick Gabriel is in his 24th year with the UK TV and radio network, and can be heard each Mon.-Fri. on The Big Blue Insider at 6 p.m. on 630 WLAP-AM, wlap.com and I Heart Radio.)