The win had to bring a huge sigh of relief to the beleaguered coach, under fire all season long despite the team's high RPI ranking and playing a schedule regarded as the toughest in the country.
Had the Cats lost, the team would have dropped seven of its last ten games including a second round knockout in the SEC and 1st round of the NCAA Tournament. Calls for the coach's head would have resonated throughout the state. But Kentucky didn't lose. They not only won, but they beat a pretty darn good Villanova squad, a team that was favored to beat the Cats by most odds makers. And consider this Kentucky fans:
After the first round of play, the Kentucky Wildcats are still standing. A number of other top programs are not so lucky. Arizona is gone. Notre Dame is gone. Georgia Tech is gone. Gonzaga is gone. And Duke is gone. Other top programs such as UCONN and Syracuse, never made it to the Dance at all. The Blue Devils were given a gift of a 6th seed this year and could not take advantage. They dropped in the opening round to 11th seed VCU.
"I've got to give Kentucky credit, said Villanova coach Jay Wright. "We were concerned about their balance and their defense was stifling. They just did a great job. We really struggled getting open looks. Randolph (Morris) did a great job coming out and playing ball screen. We diod not have an answer for him, he did a great job. I just give them credit, they're a very, very good team."
Morris scored 19 points and pulled down 11 rebounds, his 12th "double-double" of the season and his third in a row. "We knew Morris was good," said Curtis Sumpter, who scored 19 points and pulled down eight rebounds of his own, "but I am not sure we knew just how good he was. He's strong and aggressive."
"We committed too much to stopping Morris," Wright added. "When we did that Jodie Meeks and Joe Crawford stepped up. Kentucky is really tough to defend. You try to keep yourself in it defensively and get some offensive rebounds, and that's where Kentucky really impressed me. They killed us on the boards. We can usually come up with some offensive rebounds and keep ourselves in it, but we just couldn't tonight."
Kentucky surprised Wright with their work on the boards as well. Villanova typically out rebounds its opponents with multiple players hitting the glass. They have five players averaging four or more rebounds to throw at you. But Kentucky overpowered and out-muscled Villanova, commanding a 37-30 rebounding advantage.
"You try to keep yourself in it defensively and get some offensive rebounds, and that's where Kentucky really impressed me," Wright said. "They killed us on the boards. We can usually come up with some offensive rebounds and keep ourselves in it, but we just couldn't tonight."
"We knew it wasn't going to be easy," Sumpter added. "Kentucky just did a great job of executing its offense, knocking down all its free throws and they did a great job rebounding. They're a great team. They're playing very well."
Villanova, earning a winning record despite playing in the Big East, where five top 20 teams reside, is used to playing against tough defenses, but the level of Kentucky's defensive intensity impressed them.
"The way they play defense, they get up and press you and force you to make one-on-one plays. If you do that, then they'll start helping and giving you passes," Wright said. "We just couldn't get by them on the dribble and they were getting out and denying people. I thought we were lucky being down two at the half but Kentucky made some adjustments. We didn't get those looks in the second half."
"They were the better team," Wright concluded. "We didn't bring it."