LEXINGTON – The Kentucky Wildcats scored 72 points and the Auburn Tigers 62 points Saturday in an event at Rupp Arena that was much closer to a mugging than a basketball game, so any enjoyment you derived out of this event (I refuse to call it a basketball game) depends on whether or not you enjoy watching a mugging.
Auburn played the game like Mike Tyson fought a boxing match in his prime, and for those of us who wish basketball was more akin to the way Muhammad Ali or Sugar Ray Leonard boxed, this was, at best, unpleasant.
Afterward, Auburn coach Tony Barbee said, with no irony intended, I’m suspect: “I’m proud of the way our guys fought.”
He also said he was proud of the way his Tigers competed, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
This was utter nonsense.
Asked his team’s game plan, Barbee said: “To be competitive. To be competitive. That’s all I got to say.”
A reporter asked Barbee, in so many words, if there’s a difference between competing and playing dirty.
“I thought our guys played a clean game,” Barbee said. “It’s the only way as a team that we’re going to survive and give ourselves a chance, especially against a team as talented and well coached as Kentucky is.”
Well, okay, I’ll give him that. Which is probably what Tyson was thinking when he bit off the ear of Evander Holyfield.
The officials working Saturday’s event – Tony Greene, Mark Whitehead and Steven Anderson – should at least share in the blame. In the first half they allowed Auburn to largely get away with a parade of hacks, shoves, elbows, hip checks, and so on, until late in that period Jordan Granger of Auburn mugged Archie Goodwin of Kentucky, and Goodwin got upset about it.
Both players picked up technical fouls, but Granger was ejected and Goodwin was not.
After that there was a long stretch early in the second half where the officials called pretty much everything. Since the Tigers were doing the majority of the hacks, shoves, elbows, this resulted in 29 fouls being called on Auburn and 21 on Kentucky. The Wildcats were 26 of 38 at the free throw line, and the Tigers were 11 of 17.
And, again, this wasn’t the kind of home cooking the Wildcats take advantage of on occasion at Rupp. The difference in the fouls called and the number of trips each team took to the line pretty much accurately reflected the philosophy of each team coming into this event.
I understand that the officials do not want to call every foul and have fans sit through a three-hour game with walk-ons in at the finish, just like in football officials don’t want to call a hold on every play, though they could.
So it’s kind of a darned if you do, darned if you don’t when it comes to deciding what to call and what not. I get that.
So what we’re seeing more of these days is this: Officials are letting the players play until somebody gets upset and all of a sudden, a Xavier-Cincinnati game, a la 2011, breaks out. Or an Ole Miss-Missouri game, such as the event played earlier Saturday, that saw a fight break out.
The closest we came to that kind of boiling point at Rupp Saturday was when Granger fouled Goodwin so hard it couldn’t be ignored, and Goodwin took exception.
If you think I’m over-reacting and being over the top on this rant, ask yourself why scoring has gone down so much the past couple years in college basketball in an era when the players that make up rosters like Kentucky’s play the game year round.
You can’t chalk all this up to poor fundamentals – or poor coaching.
So what did UK coach John Calipari say about all this? Let me preface that by telling you Barbee played for Calipari when Cal coached at Massachusetts in the 90s.
So Calipari spent the first couple minutes building up Barbee, calling him a GREAT coach. Not a good one, Cal said, a great one.
Then a few minutes later, Calipari suggested that we in the media are too ignorant to understand all of this. And maybe he’s right. I’m just telling you what I saw Saturday. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. You, too, might have seen it differently.
I wish I could join you on that.
But, later, Calipari spoke of physical play in a more generalized sense.
“I just don’t want to get anybody hurt,” Calipari said. “I said a couple weeks ago that I thought it was getting better. But there’s...if a hand goes on a guy or a body check or a hip versus the press, like you’re being pressed and a guy hips you, those should all be fouls. I don’t care. They should all be fouls.
“But they’re not, and that’s okay, so you have to play through it and figure out how to play.”
Calipari admitted that in the case of his one-and-done UK teams, he may be self serving in that assessment.
“Maybe I’m being self serving...I always have a young team that they’re trying to beat up,” Calipari said. “If I had a big, physical team, maybe I’d say, ‘Let them play...what are you talking about, you big baby?’”
Asked what can be done to clean up the game and bring basketball skills back to this mess, Calipari said, again: “Call the fouls. Call the fouls. Call the fouls. Call them all. Call them on us.”
Asked if there is a correlation between the physical play being allowed and lower scores, Calipari emphatically said yes.
“When you get body checked and you miss a one-footer - when you miss 17 one-footers - unless they totally stink, they probably got body checked,” he said. “This shouldn’t be about who wins in the weight room. This is about movement and spacing and that kind of stuff.”
Yeah, and I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.
“But it’s where it’s going, and it’ll take time to change,” Calipari added. “I mean, people have to get together and say, if you put this on a guy, it’s a foul. If you hip check a guy in transition or it’s body to body in transition, it’s a foul.”
The bright side for the Wildcats is they did come out with more points than Auburn. Kentucky improved to 17-6 overall and 8-2 in the Southeastern Conference, while Auburn fell to 9-14 and 3-7.
The Wildcats shot 20 of 46 from the field for 43.5 percent, and out-rebounded the Tigers, 35-29.
Five Wildcats scored in double figures, led by Kyle Wiltjer with 14 points. Willie Cauley-Stein and Ryan Harrow added 12 points each, and Nerlens Noel and Julius Mays added 10 points each.
Noel led Kentucky on the boards with 12 rebounds. Mays was next with six rebounds.
Calipari said Cauley-Stein and Jarod Polson sparked his team. Polson had just three points, three rebounds, two assists and one turnover in 20 minutes. Not great numbers, of course, but Polson played with an energy and poise that was rare in this event.
“We’re so happy with Jarrod Polson and so happy with Willie Cauley,” Calipari said. “And it was nothing but (their) energy. That’s all it is. Just come out and ball. Quit worrying about how you’re playing for yourself. Worry about our team and just bring energy.”
The Wildcats move on to play at Florida Tuesday night at 7 on ESPN. Florida has enough talent, of course, to not have to play like Auburn did. After Tuesday, however, who knows?
Calipari has a suspicion, however.
“There’ll be people watching this game (UK-Auburn) and prepare for us off this game,” Calipari said.