The teams are decidedly different but the situations are similar and if Kentucky fans are lucky, their seasons might run along the same successful parallel – perhaps with a happier ending.
This year’s Kentucky team, the one that snuck out of Nashville late Thursday night with a 60-58 victory, would do well to pattern itself after the Wildcats of 2002-03.
That squad, you might recall, turned its season around by stealing the magic out of Memorial Gym. This year’s ballclub employed a different kind of magic – the type provided by a fortuitously horrendous call that went against the home team.
With 18 seconds left and the Wildcats nursing a 58-55 lead, Nerlens Noel hit a bucket in the lane but not before the shot clock had expired. The officials didn’t see it that way and the ensuing basket made it 60-55, Kentucky.
ESPN’s replays showed Noel still had the ball in his hand when the buzzer sounded, but it is not a reversible play.
The Commodores quickly nailed a three-pointer , cutting the lead to 60-58. The Wildcats, after a timeout, promptly threw the ball away trying to inbounds the ball with 6.7 seconds left.
Vandy’s ensuing inbounds play went awry and the ‘Dores had to settle for a desperation three that clanged, giving Kentucky the victory.
Not exactly an inspirational kind of win, but a thin, young, inexperienced UK team had survived one of the toughest stops on the Southeastern Conference trail in the league opener.
The ’02-’03 Wildcats in December had suffered an 18-point loss at Louisville, minus veteran point guard Cliff Hawkins, who had been declared academically ineligible for the first semester. Talented but troubled big man Jason Parker had been dismissed from the team before the season ever started, and versatile swingman Antwain Barbour had suffered a broken hand during the team’s trip to Hawaii and would be sidelined for several games.
So it wasn’t a real surprise when the Commodores, on a cold January night in the Music City, took a 36-28 halftime lead over lethargic UK.
What happened next is a mystery that has unraveled only slightly. Not so much what, but why.
The Cats came out and obliterated the ‘Dores in the second half, employing a suffocating version of the ball-line defense coach Tubby Smith embraced. And this was defense unlike any the Cats had ever displayed under Smith – not even his national championship team of 1998.
They completely undressed Vanderbilt, holding the home team to just 16 points in what turned into a 74-52 Kentucky rout. The Cats forced 22 turnovers, including six by Commodores point guard Russell Lakey. Four Wildcats scored in double figures, and forward Erik Daniels missed by one bucket making it five.
After the game, the media on the UK beat asked the Wildcats what their coach had said to them at halftime to inspire such effort in the second half. To a man, they shrugged off the question. Nothing much different, they said. And the coach said the same thing.
Kentucky’s winning streak that year reached 26 games, ending in the Elite Eight when Dwyane Wade and Marquette upset the Cats, by then ranked #1 in the country. UK’s Keith Bogans, who was having an All-America season, had suffered a high-ankle sprain in the previous game and could barely compete. But it had been a magnificent run.
On several occasions during the season, we asked the players (and the coach as well) to take us back to that night in Nashville and re-examine what they discussed at halftime. Time and again the answer was, Nothing special.
But in the years since we’ve learned that Tubby Smith really peeled some paint in the locker room that night, challenging his team to show more toughness and togetherness. Sound familiar? John Calipari has been demanding the same thing.
Of course, his team is nowhere near as deep as the ‘02-’03 Wildcats, nor does it have the experience. Calipari’s UK teams likely never will have that kind of insight. But if it shows that kind of enthusiasm for defense and teamwork, it might be able to extend its season beyond where those Cats finished.
As Tubby’s team reached its stride during the streak (which netted Smith every major coaching award the post-season had to offer, a clean sweep of 10), it was a joy to watch – and hear. Anyone courtside could hear the Cats talking to each other on defense, either switching around screens or going through them.
Calipari, of course, has been preaching the same thing since the first day of practice, unleashing the “selfish” description (again) of players who fail to communicate on the court.
Kentucky looked sharp in the first half against a woefully undermanned Vandy squad, slipping off to a 35-24 halftime lead which would have been worse, had it not been for two late Commodore three-pointers.
The second half turned into a nightmare as Vanderbilt’s zone completely undid the Wildcats, who saw the Commodores rip off an 18-0 run and take the lead. To their credit, the Cats didn’t panic, although their shot selection against the Vandy zone might have made it seem that way.
But Kentucky got stops and defensive rebounds when it needed them most, along with a fortunate call on the road, and pulled out the victory – the kind of win that might serve as a bedrock for a young team trying to find itself, not unlike that ballclub 10 years ago.
The ’02-’03 Wildcats were incredibly unselfish. And once the light came on, all they did was win, until the moment their warrior went down. That’s when the streak ended.
And even though the victory that season over Vanderbilt wasn’t the first of that memorable run, for all practical purposes, it was the emotional jump-start. And it all began in Nashville.
Perhaps this year’s team will say the same thing.
(Dick Gabriel is in his 24th season with the UK TV and Radio Networks, and can be heard on the Big Blue Insider Monday through Friday from 6-8 p.m. ET on 630 WLAP-AM and wlap.com.)