Past performance is not always indicative of future results. It’s a pretty simple concept. Still, it’s hard to think that way when you’ve experienced the same thing over and over again.
For 38 games, we all played the dogs to John Calipari’s Dr. Pavlov. We were conditioned to salivate upon hearing phrases like “nine McDonalds All-Americans” and “platoon system.” And for the 38 games, the whistle would blow, Kentucky would play, and Kentucky would win (and you were probably left salivating after some highlight reel plays). The Wildcats lost one of those high school all-stars (Alex Poythress) early on and the platoon system was eventually abandoned to give the better players more playing time. But the message was still clear: Kentucky had more talent than any other team in the country.
So when Wisconsin came out firing last night, gaining a nine-point lead midway through the first half, the game didn’t feel out of hand at all. It would’ve been far too early to say with any certainty who would win the game, but at that point I still would’ve said Kentucky. Sure enough, the Wildcats went on a run of their own, and even though it was the Badgers’ Bronson Koenig who hit the final shot of the half to tie at 36–36, it still felt like Kentucky had things under control going into the second half. Heading into last night, the Wildcats were 8–0 when tied or trailing at the half. Oh, they were 30–0 in all other games. *Hears whistle* *Salivates*
The Badgers came out strong once again after the break, though, getting an eight-point advantage. The Wildcats responded like clockwork, climbing back to gain the lead. They literally worked the clock against the Badgers, too, holding them to one made field goal over a 10:18 period.
Now, I didn’t get to watch the last six minutes of game action live. To make matters worse, I watched those final minutes with a friend who knew how it ended. I tried to avoid looking at him for fear that his expression would give away the outcome. Every time I did look, I was convinced more and more that Kentucky was going to win. But was I really reading his face, or just projecting what I had been conditioned to believe onto it? *Hears whistle* *Salivates*
When Aaron Harrison converted an old-fashioned three-point play to pull the Wildcats to within one, I thought their defense would tighten up down the stretch as it had all season and give them a chance to win. With the game tied and 1:44 to play, Sam Dekker hit a huge step-back three. Dekker had been hitting big shots for the Badgers all tournament, but his stretch of dominance wasn’t nearly as long as Kentucky’s. The shot was important, to be sure—Kentucky never led or tied after that—but it still felt like more of blip in the larger story of the Wildcats pulling out another close one like they did in the previous game.
With the clock ticking below 10 seconds, Harrison appeared to have a chance. Not to win, but to pull within one once again and make the final moments of the game infinitely more interesting. He took a deep three like he did last year to beat Wisconsin, only this time it was an air ball.
It wasn’t until Harrison’s shot fell well short of the hoop that I truly entertained the idea of Kentucky losing. For the first time all season, there was no whistle. There was no salivating. The last thing you should do with an undefeated team is count them out, but there the Badgers were, icing the game at the free throw line. It was over.
It was shocking to see. Not necessarily that the Wildcats lost—Calipari emphasized numerous times that his team wasn’t perfect, and Bo Ryan’s team is pretty darn good—but how they lost. Kentucky’s biggest (pun intended), most notable (literally) advantage was its size. The Wildcats had as many guys listed at 6’10” or taller (four) as the other three Final Four teams combined. But that didn’t bother the Badgers, whose front line of Nigel Hayes, Dekker, and Frank Kaminsky goes 6’8”, 6’9”, and 7’0”, with 6’10” Duje Dukan coming off the bench. This was a blend of a size and skill the Wildcats hadn’t seen before, and it forced Kentucky to adapt to its opponent for a change, instead of the other way around.
The Badgers scored 1.22 points per possession against what is statistically the best defense in the KenPom era (since the 2001–02 season). They out-rebounded the ’Cats by 12, and blocked only two fewer shots than them. Where they really changed the game scoring wise was at the rim. On the season the Wildcats allowed their opponents to take only 34.2 percent of their shots at the rim, per hoop-math.com. However, the Badgers managed to take 26 of their 48 shots (54.2 percent) from in close, hitting half of them. That, combined with their 41.2 percent three-point shooting, was a lethal combination.
At the other end of the court, the Badgers held the Wildcats 11 percent below their season average of 69.1 percent shooting at the rim. Had Kentucky shot its regular rate, it would’ve scored about six more points, nearly enough to cover the final seven-point margin.
If you really did want to go based on past performance to predict the result of this game, you could’ve looked at the 1990–91 UNLV team. The Runnin’ Rebels also entered the Final Four undefeated after making the championship game the previous season, only to lose to a team they beat the season before. Or the five previous teams that entered the Final Four with more than 30 straight wins in that same season and failed to win the national title (Kentucky makes six).
But this wasn’t about any of that, either. There was no fate or destiny involved. It was just about two great teams playing a great game—the best we’ve seen all season. Whichever team wins Monday night will be crowned the champions for this season, a game that, despite what we’ve all been led to believe would happen, will not include Kentucky.