OK, Hoosier Nation… a call to arms! Once again we come across our bitter basketball rival on this upcoming Friday night. Our neighbor to the south, who is in rich in basketball tradition as we are here in Indiana, comes boasting more national titles and a decade plus of basketball superiority over us. At least we are more educated and have better looking women.
OK, OK… I won’t make this personal. That’s the last of the hillbilly insults in today’s blog. Any collegiate basketball fan has to respect the power that is UK basketball. Contrary to how IU builds its’ respective program… Kentucky prowls for the nation’s elite, the one and dones if you will (where would their program be if the NBA did not instill the current draft eligibility rule that prevents High School players from going straight to the NBA?) that allows them to compete for a national title almost every year. How many upper-classmen are on their squad? I’m sure there are a few but how many actually play meaningful minutes? Compare this to the way the Hoosiers build their respective program. They find talented, blue-collar, highly intellectual players and build upon their experience and leadership. In the last decade we have had two players leave IU early for the NBA (Jared Jeffries & Eric Gordon). I don’t know the exact # from Kentucky but we can all guestimate that it probably well over quadruples that # of IU. Does that make UK a bad or unethical program? Absolutely not. But experience counts in postseason play. Didn’t even Calipari and other analysts contribute the loss earlier in the season to Indiana to the fact that the UK squad, and their primary play-makers, had never played in an atmosphere like Assembly Hall? Absolutely.
Two similar elite programs. Two completely different administrative philosophies.
This brings us to the border battle on Friday night. The victor earns a spot in the Elite 8 and a very legitimate shot at the Final Four. Both teams have drastically improved from their initial matchup in early December. Both have gotten significant experience, locked-up their primary rotations, learned of their go-to players in the clutch, and have determined how to win (and lose) basketball games. The two top freshman in all of college basketball will go head to head, neither will be intimidated, and both eager to win their respective match-ups (recent NBA mock drafts have Davis going #1 and Zeller #9. Thankfully, for the Hoosiers, Zeller is not expected to declare while Davis is). The MAJOR differentiating factor in the rematch is that the game will be played in Atlanta and not the friendly confines of Assembly Hall.
I expect a split crowd of blue/white & cream/crimson. I expect nerves to be tested early. I expect a game of runs. I expect a great matchup. Obviously Kentucky will be heavily favored as most ‘experts’ will expect UK to be extra motivated to beat Indiana because it’s the only team that beat them in the regular season. And all of us frequent ESPN watchers have seen the commercial highlights of Watford’s game winning buzzer beater being played over and over (much to my enjoyment – much to the dismay of the Kats’ faithful). Calipari calls it motivation. I call it a crybaby for showing his true colors. There’s no doubt that UK is a great team and the fact that they deserved the #1 overall seed in this year’s madness. But that loss was not a fluke. And it proves that they can be beaten. And they were beaten by a team they face next… the Indiana Hoosiers.
Probably, the biggest factor in IU’s favor, believe it or not, was the game that IU just won. VCU’s pressuring defense will make UK’s defense almost seem lackadaisical (it’s not but comparatively it will be a lot easier on the backcourt of the Hoosiers). Although VCU didn’t have the nation’s best shot blocker they’ll see in Davis. But besides the early game jitters caused by the huge bump in adrenaline, I expect IU to play a very ‘clean’ game limiting their turnovers. I expect Jordan Hulls to have a huge rebound of a game and Matt Roth to have 3-4 three pointers in relief. Will Sh and Oladipo, who earned huge confidence-building experience with their clutch play in the round of 32 will only be more eager to prove their worth & talent. Watford will also make it a point to prove that his game-winning 3 from earlier in the season is actually part of his normal game routine. We already talked about Zeller but it is important that the extra two days rest will prove very beneficial to him and the rest of the team. Pritchard will be at his most aggressive self and Remy Abel (now playing meaningful minutes every game) will want to shut down UK’s guards from his home state.
Make no mistake… I am not predicting a win. That would be foolish against a squad as talented as Kentucky. But I do predict a close battle that will come down to which squad wants it more and shows it by getting to the line, forcing turnovers, and putting their respective teammates over individual egos.
A border-war for a spot in the Elite 8… it will be nerve-racking, it will be stressful, and it will be utterly entertaining. Stay tuned Hoosier Nation and more now than ever before… stay faithful.