It has been a weekend of celebration, but also sadness for Big Blue Nation as the Cats march towards a 9th banner began with the passing of a mountain legend. Ira Combs passed away in Louisville while picking up his media credential for the NCAA Tournament and beginning what was one of his favorite weekends of the year. Ira loved the Sweet 16 and the NCAA Tournament and tweeted earlier this week about how much he was looking forward to covering both:
Have reached top of mtn in 11 year career member of sports media crew in Ky will see 10 games in Sweet 16 at Rupp & 6 games in NCAA at Yum
— Ira D. Combs (@combsbrothers5) March 17, 2015
During his life, Ira was a UK writer, a school administrator, a basketball coach, a football coach, an umpire and a radio host. But more importantly than all of that, he was a wonderful person who was kind to others and loved the state of Kentucky, particularly the mountains of Eastern Kentucky where he lived. Spend any time with Ira, as I have been fortunate enough to do over the last couple years, and he would tell stories about the past, characters he has known or his opinion about the latest gossip around the world of UK sports. He was a regular listener to KSR and would often text me during the show with things he wanted me to make sure and say, and more often than not I did…because he always had good insight and a funny sense of humor. In a world where people are often self-absorbed about their own issues, Ira constantly wanted to help those around him. He came to a dozen of our radio tour stops this summer to give away UK memorabilia from his collection and when I asked him why he was doing it, he said, “I don’t know how much time I have left and I thought the kind of person that would come to one of these shows is the kind of person who would appreciate some of what I have collected.” When Oscar told me of his passing, it made my heart sink and I know I speak for Drew, Ryan, Tyler and everyone at KSR who has been touched by the wonderfully kind Mr. Combs when I say that he will be greatly missed by all of us. Our prayers go out to Oscar, Harold and his entire family.
Photo by USA Today Sports
Three two-game Tournaments. Coaches always say that his how they look at the NCAA Tournament, and correspondingly, I have never believed them. As a fan, I have always spent the first two weekends watching the games in the other brackets, desperately hoping that the favorites would find a way to lose and the Cats’ path to a National Championship would somehow open up. But once I began traveling to the games six years ago, it became clear that for the teams, these tournament experiences are really measured in weekends. When I look back at the best of the Calipari era in the Tournament, I think locations…the amazing Ohio State/UNC double that took place in Newark, the massive UK party in New Orleans with the 2012 title team and the unbelievable fun of the UL/Michigan back to back last year in Indianapolis (maybe the most fun NCAA stop I have had). And when I think of the worst of the NCAA trips, the cold depression of Syracuse, the urban spread awfulness of Houston and the melancholy of the post-UCONN drive back from Dallas come to mind.
All of those past experiences however involved drives and just as in 2012, the first two rounds being in Louisville (where I live) made this an amazing weekend as a UK fan. The streets of Louisville were covered with Blue as the BBN descended in numbers that even dominated the showing in 2012. I was amazed on Thursday night and even more so on Saturday, just how many tickets Kentucky fans were able to procure in the arena, turning the Yum Center into a de facto (and louder) version of Rupp Arena. The fans clearly ignited Kentucky, especially on Saturday, as they took out a physical Cincinnati team in small spurts, a 10-0 run at the end of the first half, a 11-2 sprint in the middle of the second, both of which were ignited by a crowd ready to party with one of the best teams to ever wear the uniform. Unlike last year, when an escape from St Louis was greeted with a bit of disbelief, this time we all expected Kentucky to get out of Louisville and make their way to Cleveland and have been pointing towards next weekend since the Twins decided to return. But nevertheless, there was something refreshing about feeling all of the excitement over the four days in Louisville. Like the SEC Tournament last week in Nashville, it was the culmination of a season of greatness, along with an understanding that the real business gets serious next week. A few thoughts from the madness:
— Kentucky is Still the Best Team by a Lot
I watched A LOT of college basketball this weekend and made it a point to check out all the real contenders. While the teams I expected to flounder did (UVA and Villanova), and one team looked better than I might have expected (impressive two game run from Gonzaga), I spent time watching three teams in particular…Arizona, Wisconsin and Duke. My reason for scouting these three is simple…if Kentucky plays well, these are the only three teams that can give the Cats a true battle. Other teams have a chance to knock off UK, but only if Kentucky participates in their own destruction. But these three, two of which UK might have to play, are the only ones that can beat a UK team that isn’t ice cold. Of those three, my opinions are still the same…Duke is the most dangerous, but also the most inconsistent. When they are hitting threes, they are a tough matchup, although UK’s size will cause major difficulties for them. Arizona is playing the best…their beatdown of Ohio State may have been the most impressive performance of the weekend to me overall. And Wisconsin is still the best suited to give UK fits due to playing style…they were vulnerable against Oregon, but the ability of their bigs to pull you outside makes them the toughest matchup for Kentucky. Still, as good as these teams are, Kentucky’s best is a lot better than everyone else’s best. A UK team firing on all cylinders has no match in this tournament. It isn’t about who UK plays, it is completely about how they play.
— The Open Practice was a WOW Day
Open practices during the NCAA Tournament can seem like a waste of time. Most coaches don’t use them as a real “practice” and it is basically just a glorified shootaround with fans watching. But the event on Wednesday at the Yum took it to another level. The entire lower arena was packed with Blue and it truly felt like a rock concert when the players arrived on the court. For a group that has seen most everything, even Willie Cauley-Stein mouthed “WOW” as he looked at the crowd, chanting, yelling and squealing like the audience for the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. This summer in the Bahamas, Jay Bilas and I talked about whether this would be the biggest “rock star” team since the Fab Five. I think it may be. The reception this group got that day, and then was amplified on Saturday during the highest points of the Cincy win, was one for the books.
— The Cats Escaped Cincy But Were Not Going to Lose
Much has been discussed on the Internet about the Cincinnati game and how physical it was from start to finish. Like many of you, I was driven crazy by the play, especially early in the second half, of Octavious Ellis who was clearly trying to take on the role of instigator with the more talented UK team. Yet, for all the complaining and worry (not to mention poor shooting), in the end Kentucky won by a solid margin and was up 20 with just a minute to play in the game. You cannot beat Kentucky playing the way Cincy plays, no matter what sports columnists poorly skilled in basketball knowledge may tell you. Being physical with Kentucky can make the game ugly and keep it relatively close…but you have to make shots. And no matter how physical you get with Kentucky, making shots inside over them is virtually impossible on a consistent basis. Outside shots have to fall, to then open up penetration lanes and allow you to attack UK players one on one. Cincy could do none of that. And at the other end, fouling consistently puts the Cats on the line and this team is very good, and at times great, at foul shooting. It was a nerve-wracking and at times frustrating game, but the final outcome was never in doubt. You can’t beat Kentucky playing like Cincinnati, and even a B- effort from the Cats led to a victory going away.
The Pressure is Not Getting to this Team Yet
You saw the pictures here on KSR from Drew and others. What did the UK team do all weekend in Louisville? They played Super Smash Brothers in a small hotel room at the Seelbach (seriously, the Seelbach is really nice, but you have closets that are bigger than their rooms). When the warmups were taking place before the game and the Cincy players were whooping and hollering, Kentucky players did the same thing they have always done…go through the same warmup motions, laughing and being as loose as can be. The media swarm increased this week and it will take another major leap next week, but for the players in the locker room at UK, nothing changed. Willie joked with the press, Devin smiled, Karl pulled pranks and the Twins were stoic…exactly as they have been since Day one in the Bahamas. While the circus continues to pick up freak shows, the main acts are going through business as usual, not allowing themselves one misstep in the process. More than any other group in this Tournament, these Cats have been there/done that and for them to keep their composure as they have done thus far…well it truly is a special group.
We will have coverage all week on the road to Cleveland. As of this writing, the West Virginia/Maryland game is in the second half and we will see one of these teams late on Thursday night. Whichever it is, the mission for Kentucky on the road to the title remains the same. IF the Cats play the way they are capable, #9 is there for the taking.