Evidently, free throw shooting was not a point of emphasis on the practice schedule during Camp Cal the last two weeks. I just had to get that off my chest; a little thorn now and then is good to keep today’s young and tender-minded egos in check, as well as the tender ears of the coaching staff when their sense of reality seems to get lost in how games can be won and/or lost. Free throws count as points, and unless the game has changed drastically before my eyes, whoever gets the most points wins.
Coach Cal being the ultimate player’s coach tried to take a sword for his team after the game Saturday, saying it was his fault the Cats didn’t finish off the comeback due to his poor timeout management down the stretch. My take is he was probably right on the finger pointing, but wrong on the coaching sin committed. The free throw shooting performance exhibited Saturday was a fallout of not putting in the free throw shooting repetitions needed on the practice floor to finish on game day, which Cal himself has admitted guilt in recent years at UK and Memphis.
NCAA basketball coaches have always talked out of both sides of their mouths when needed about the importance of free throws, but rarely spend the necessary amount of time in practice. It’s just like NCAA football coaches talk about the importance of special teams, but rarely spend the amount of quality time in preparation needed.
Then come game day they all walk the sidelines wringing their hands and burying their heads in their hands as games slip away into the loss column.
That’s enough. I’m through venting.
The University of Kentucky men’s basketball program hasn’t built its reputation on moral victories, nor has John Calipari reached his pinnacle in the coaching profession by squeezing in an overachieving game here and there. Both have more than earned their place in the annals of college basketball. But I’m betting that if you got the pure truth out of Coach Cal today, this UK team put a charge back in his battery with its performance against Louisville Saturday, especially from the noon mark on in the second half.
Rick Pitino and his highly ranked Louisville Cardinals had a little pay back on their mind last Saturday in the Yum Center, and although Cal’s Cats put up a gallant fight, at the end of the day it was a classic case of too much of a Cardinal advantage in the all-important categories of experience, quality depth, and home court advantage for UK to overcome, especially against a top five team like Louisville.
However, there finally seems to be certain specific areas of confidence slowly building in this young Kentucky team as they approach the end of their non-conference schedule, which has actually provided them a few more games to get battle tested than many basketball gurus are giving them credit for.
Falling under the “what if” department, UK may have lost an opportunity to make a serious run at an upset win down the stretch had they not played so poorly in the last three minutes of the first half when Louisville eased out to an eight-point halftime lead. UK had actually been matching the Cards for the most part possession by possession for the first 17 minutes and holding a soft two to six point lead during the middle 10 minutes of the first half. Then missed free throw opportunities on the front and back end of three consecutive possessions, along with a couple of turnovers, opened the door for Louisville to extend out to what felt like a short but comfortable eight-point lead heading to the dressing room for the half time.
Down the second half stretch when UK was down 17 and about to be buried, the fight that Cal had been looking for since the preseason finally surfaced in several of the Wildcats. Along with a few timely three pointers from Kyle Wiltjer and Archie Goodwin, the Cats came up a couple turnovers and several missed free throws short of pulling off a big win.
Now the Cats have one more non-conference game with Eastern Michigan on Wednesday in Rupp Arena before they take an unusual weekend off and resume play with their first SEC game at Vanderbilt on Jan. 10. The Cats’ first 10 SEC games are split evenly with five on the road and five at home, and none are against a ranked opponent. As a matter of fact, Florida and Missouri are the lone ranked SEC teams at the present time and appear to be the only SEC teams other than possibly UK to have a shot at being ranked the remainder of the year.
NCAA’s 10 most difficult hoops venues I’ve experienced
Having grown up the youngest of an eight-member family that lived and died daily with sports, especially UK and KHSAA sports, along with just recently completing a 45-year career as a player, coach, A.D., scouting service director and game promoter, I’ve had the luxury of visiting some pretty special basketball venues across the USA. Recently, after being pushed by a few e-mail buddies and column friends, I’ve sat down and listed my top 10 basketball venues for a visitor to win in, so here goes. Feel free to send me your top 10, but only the ones you’ve personally witnessed game competition in.
1 - Memorial Coliseum / UK — Rupp’s stretch from the late 40’s to late 60”s was unique for any sport especially basketball.
2 - Cameron Indoor Stadium / Duke — Coach K’s dominance in this pit may never be matched.
3 - Allen Field House/Kansas — I saw a very good Texas Tech team who beat North Carolina that March be humbled earlier that year in this gym when they were down 45-8 at halftime.
4 - Rupp Arena/UK — John Calipari’s recent run of 51 in a row may yet be trumped in the future if the recruiting scenario continues for Cal.
5 - Henry Iba Arena/Oklahoma State — The noise can be deafening, and during the Eddie Sutton era it was even more special because he played for the legendary IBA.
6 - Freedom Hall/Louisville — Denny Crum in Freedom Hall was just about automatic during the 80’s, and he took on all comers from coast to coast when scheduling.
7 - Dean Smith Center/North Carolina — Tar Heels slipped a little after the legendary Smith retired, but alum Roy Williams has brought back a couple NCAA championships.
8 - Assembly Hall/Indiana — Again Hoosiers like Tar Heels fell on hard times for about a decade after forcing The General out of town, but Cream seems to have them back on course.
9 - Old Barnhill Arena/Arkansas — Eddie Sutton made it famous then Nolan Richardson raised it a level with his 40 minutes of hell approach.
10 - Stokley Athletic Center/Tennessee — Ray Mears made it famous with the Ernie & Bernie Show, but Don Devoe was just as successful. God Joe B. hated this place.
Honorable Mention :
Maravich Assembly Center/LSU — Dale Brown had several elite teams but those teams led by The Pistol were special and very entertaining. Only Adolph Rupp could win in this place.
Diddle Arena/Western Ky. University — Many Hilltopper alumni tell me you couldn’t gain admittance on game night without a red towel and / or a red shirt.
Actually, the toughest place to win a college basketball game during the decades of the 60’s and 70’s was over in Frankfort at Kentucky State University. You simply couldn’t beat Lucius Mitchell and his boys. The legendary Adolph Rupp once said during the Mitchell era at KSU after watching him one night that, “I am proud of my boys, they play hard and can hold their own with just about anyone, but the best basketball player that I’ve seen in several years doesn’t wear blue and white nor play in Lexington, he is over here in Frankfort and his name is Travis Grant.”