By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer
So let’s talk about the “elephant in the room” when it comes to Kentucky’s 75-66 road loss to Auburn on Saturday night. A lot has been said about Auburn’s strategy to attack UK’s inside game, it’s effort and execution during the game and the raucous atmosphere that Auburn Head Coach Bruce Pearl created for this game. That’s all fine and each of those elements probably impacted the final outcome of the game.
But another aspect of the game that has not been mentioned enough is the physical nature of Auburn’s inside players that held (no pun intended) UK center Nick Richards, forwards EJ Montgomery and Nate Sestina to 9 points and 12 rebounds in 71 minutes of play while accumulating 9 fouls themselves. Physical nature meaning hold, grab, push, elbow and use lower body checks to impede the Kentucky player’s progress to the basket to shoot the ball or attempt to rebound.
UK fans are familiar with that strategy. It was successfully employed by former UK Coach Rick Pitino for many years at the University of Kentucky and later at the University of Louisville. It works well if the referees are accommodating. They were very accommodating Saturday night down on the Plains. To the tune of 44 free throws for the home team while the visitors shot 24.
In fact Bruce Pearl seemed very pleased with his strategy implementation and the final results. He said, “Nick Richards has been dominating lately, and (Wiley) was just physically able to hang in there and to negate some of it, and I thought Anfernee McLemore, who gives away a lot of size, hung in there as well.”
Everything Bruce Pearl said about how his team “physically hung in there” with Nick Richards is true…and worked well if the referees are willing to allow the game to become a football matchup on hardwood. And that’s exactly what they did. They called “touch” fouls the whole game and ignored the over the back and bodycheck fouls that occurred during rebounding activity and offensive moves in the paint. That played right into Auburn’s game plan. It worked well in Auburn, Alabama but will it work on a neutral court or an away court without those same referees? It seems that only time, and SEC officiating, will tell if that strategy will continue to work against Kentucky in the future.
Also keep in mind that statistically it would seem unlikely that a UK team that consistently shoots more free throws than their opponents would, in a single game, all of a sudden become a fouling machine to the tune of 29 fouls that created 44 free throws while they themselves were only fouled 20 times and allowed to shoot 24 free throws. And two of those free throws came from a Bruce Pearl technical foul for being out of the coaching box.
None of that appears to be logical so maybe there is a different explanation. Maybe former UK point guard Roger Harden’s explanation is a better one. He said via Twitter, “When u watch your opponent shoots 20 more free throws than u & u see your mates going 2 the bench n foul trouble you start to play passive on ‘D”’just to stay in the game .. it looks like no effort but it’s not.. I(t)’s why we lost the battle on the boards … poor reffing has a domino effect.”
That could be the answer.
Or maybe it’s what former Indiana player and former Head Coach turned ESPN analyst Dan Dakich tweeted, “Kentucky not being allowed to play in this game..quick whistle on The Cats. The worst officiating of the year in UK Auburn..UK was absolutely taken out of this game.. Terrible.”
Contrary to what most people say, referees do impact the game and they do impact who wins the game. To say otherwise is foolish in my opinion. I have coached and watched enough games to realize that in any sport, but especially basketball, how the officials enforce the rules tremendously impacts the outcome of the game. I have seen it when Kentucky wins and I have seen it when Kentucky loses.
But the bottom line is, regardless of how the game is called, coaches and players have to find a way to overcome whatever adversity they face and score more points than their opponent. Players have to do their best to be in the right position, take the best shots and give the most effort. Sometimes it’s enough to overcome all the other adverse factors during the game, sometimes it’s not. Saturday night at Auburn it was not.
But, the good thing about college basketball, unlike college football, is that every team gets a chance to play for the National Championship, even if they lose key regular season games. Celebrating on your home floor after a big win against another ranked team is great but, as UK fans know all too well, becomes meaningless when they toss up the ball in the NCAA Tournament.
And if the Auburn fans don’t think so they may want to go talk to Christian Watford and some of the players from Indiana’s 2012 NCAA Tournament team. I’m sure they could corroborate that regular season wins can be memorable but they don’t put any points on the scoreboard in the NCAA Tournament.