Morris dunk; Cats up five; Cincinnati and Nick Lachey head home in tears. However like everything with this young group of Cats, nothing came easy. The pass was a bit too high and caromed off the rim, shooting straight up into the air, and falling fortunately back into the hands of an awaiting Morris. Randolph immediately went straight back up with his newly-found gem, putting in a layup and getting the fourth foul on Cincinnati star Jason Maxiel in the process.
Television timeout, Kentucky goes up five, and the Wildcats are headed for yet another Sweet 16. Much has been made about this play in the post-game chatter, as it gave Kentucky a comfortable margin that it did not relinquish. However it also can be seen as a metaphor for a season that has perplexed virtually all of the Kentucky faithful.
Much was unknown about this Kentucky team in the preseason. Few knew what to expect from such a young group that would essentially be playing only two individuals (Hayes and Azubuike) who saw significant minutes last season. Several unknowns would have to contribute and it was expected that this would be somewhat of a rebuilding year. Fans however were confident that the team was loaded with talent, as the arrival of the four heralded freshman was greeted with more expectations than any class in recent memory. Thus it was fitting that the key play on Saturday involved two of these young men, Rajon Rondo and Randolph Morris, players whose continued development during the season has been a joy to watch.
On the play in question, Rondo was doing what he does best, playing unselfish and attempting to set up one of his fellow players. Recruited as a slasher guard with the reputation of a fast-break leader, Rondo has become the prototypical Tubby Smith point guard, calmly leading the team in the half-court set and providing crucial ball control at the end of games.
The pass went to Randolph Morris, the big man who oozes talent, but all too often this season has seemed to defer to others for offensive production. Morris has spent the last seven games refining his offensive skills and re-asserting his desire to be an integral part of scoring situations. His post-up on Maxiel was strong, keeping the Bearcats' star on his hip, in perfect post-up position.
Thus the play was set up for a simple Kentucky basket. The talented freshman point guard would lob the ball to the talented freshman center, and the Cats would roll on. Yet similarly to the season as a whole, this basket would not come easy. The Rondo pass was just inches off in the same manner as many Patrick Sparks three pointers, Chuck Hayes lay-ups, and Kelenna Azubuike mid-range jumpers have come oh-so-close to falling. The ball glanced the rim, and many amongst the Big Blue Nation had to be having "Squeaky" UAB flashbacks.
Yet then something interesting happened. As if moved by an outside force, the ball flaunted theories of geometry and shot straight up into the air, back into the hands of Morris. Many would later call this luck, arguing that Morris was in the "right place at the right time" in order to recover the carom.
However these folks also thought that the Patrick Sparks foul in the Louisville game was luck and the comeback at Ole Miss was luck, and thinking back to last year, the Eric Daniels layup at Mississippi State was luck. They completely ignored the superior post-up position that Morris kept so that the leaper Maxiel could not sky to grab the ball. A team that is this "lucky" so consistently should really invest in the lottery or the stock market. We know that the "sun shines bright on our old Kentucky home," but to many this team violates all laws of probability theory.
And as has happened so many times in the Tubby Smith era, the Kentucky team took what initially looked to be a negative and turned into an even greater positive. Morris went up with his prize, made the layup and was fouled, a result that would have been impossible if he had scored on the initial pass. The Cincinnati team reacted to the basket with despondence, and never truly made another run in the rest of the contest. Just like that, the rivalry that only one of the two teams really believes existed was over and Kentucky was moving on. The team that everyone ranging from Clark "I refuse to look directly into the camera" Kellogg to Digger "It is amazing I still have this job" Phelps picked to lose was going forward, shaking its head at the naysayers and showing the resolve that marks all Tubby Smith-coached teams.
It is easy to be dismissive of this bunch and to assume the worst. Many see Andrew Bogut as a 7-foot nightmare for the Wildcats that will create matchup problems that could be impossible to overcome. Others think that Duke or Michigan State will have just a bit too much talent for Kentucky to topple, and the Wildcats will join their fellow SEC underachievers in a long off-season.
However whenever you consider falling for the doomsday scenarios, remember the play at the end of Saturday's game. Like the season, it started out with such promise, took some bumps along the way, but ended up even better than could have been predicted. This Kentucky team continues to be unexplainable.
There have been many instances when they have been so dreadful on offense that some feel as if they are watching one of the worst groups in the last ten years. However somehow they are 27-5, in the Sweet 16 and have a truly legitimate shot at the Final 4. Maybe, just maybe, this Tubby Smith guy knows what he is doing.