Monmouth continued its daunting non-conference schedule with a Saturday matinee against powerhouse Kentucky in Madison Square Garden. While the Wildcats’ length and athleticism was too much for the Hawks to handle, King Rice and his squad continue to learn from these experiences. Continue reading
This season we’re introducing a new feature, Weekly Awards! Each Monday at noon we’ll be announcing our selections for the area’s Team, Player and Rookie of the Week. As has been discussed a bit in the Power Poll – “area” is a pretty loosely defined term. Still, we’ll try to highlight the best stories in and around New York City as much as possible. Continue reading
Less than one year ago, John Calipari and his Kentucky Wildcats were hoisting up the NCAA championship trophy as the best team in all of the land. On Tuesday night, the Wildcats’ season mercifully came to a close in Moon Township, of all places, with the Robert Morris Colonials stunning the defending NCAA champs, 59-57.
After winning the opening tip with 7’0″ center Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky failed to use their overwhelming length and athleticism to their advantage against the undersized, yet tenacious Colonials. Quite simply, Robert Morris out-hustled, out-toughed, and out-fought the bigger and more athletic Wildcats throughout. When it was all over, the Colonial Crazies, Robert Morris’ vociferous and passionate student section, may have become the first group of fans ever to storm the floor after a first round victory in the NIT. But it was well worth it, as Robert Morris gave the Northeast Conference its biggest victory in the history of the league.
Using the feverish crowd to their advantage, the Colonials raced out to a 10-0 lead, thanks in large part to some sharp shooting from the perimeter. (It’s like the Wildcat players forgot the game plan defensively – do not let these Colonials get open looks!) Anthony Myers-Pate, Coron Williams, and Russell Johnson each hit long, open jumpers to kick off the festivities. Eventually, Kentucky would find their bearings and inch their way back into the game, but Andy Toole’s group set the tone early. These Colonials would not be intimidated by a team fortified with top 50 recruits and former McDonald’s All Americans.
After a 10-2 run late in the first half gave the Wildcats their first lead, Robert Morris fought back to lead at halftime, 28-27. Kentucky may have worked their way back, but Calipari was none too pleased as he was walking into the visitor’s locker room for the break. He told the ESPN sideline reporter that his team was shying away from the physical battle Robert Morris had allowed the first half to become. The Wildcat players needed to be hungrier and tougher if they wanted to avoid the monster upset, in the coach’s opinion.
Whatever Calipari told his team at the half didn’t really work. All-NEC first teamer Velton Jones came out determined in the second stanza, rattling off six straight points to guide his Colonials back to a semi-comfortable advantage. If the nation didn’t know about the feisty bulldog of a point guard who hails from Philly, then they surely did now. This kid is something special, but you (as a NEC reader) already knew that.
Ironically, it wasn’t the athletic, yet passive Alex Poythress, or the freakish tall Cauley-Stein, or the versatile Kyle Wiltjer who kept the Wildcats in the game when things were looking bleak for Big Blue Nation. It was the seldom used Jarrod Polson who best matched Robert Morris’ energy on the floor. Calipari rewarded the junior – who had only played 33% of Kentucky’s available minutes this season – with 31 minutes of playing time, easily a season high. Polson finished with 10 points on five shots to go along with three assists versus only one turnover.
Despite Polson’s and Archie Goodwin’s efforts, Robert Morris extended their lead to as much as 13 points in the second half, after a Russell Johnson three-pointer. Suffice it to say, things were looking so promising for Robert Morris that the Colonial Crazies were beginning to plan the best route for court storming. (Heads up, press row!)
Kentucky, however, had one last spurt in them, as they embarked on a 17-4 run to cut the lead to one, 54-53, with only 3:18 remaining. In the midst of Kentucky’s furious rally, Lucky Jones made things a lot more difficult for Toole when he physically assaulted Goodwin on a fast break lay-up attempt. The foolish foul was called a flagrant two, and lead to Jones’ ejection from the game.
With the game once again in question, Velton Jones put his team on his shoulders and refused to let his storied career end on Tuesday night. After a now motivated Goodwin laid the ball in with only 44 seconds left to tie the contest, Jones fed a cutting Russell Johnson underneath the basket. Johnson’s shot was blocked by Cauley-Stein, but Mike McFadden was there for the offensive rebound. He was fouled attempting the put-back, but calmly under intense pressure, drilled both free throws. A wild three by Wiltjer fell short at the buzzer, sending The Chuck into a frenzy.
It was an improbably victory for Robert Morris, who now will await the winner of Providence and Charlotte. Even more improbable was Kentucky’s inability to take full advantage of their size and skill set. Cauley-Stein and Witjer combined to take ten shots (ten shots!), while the Wildcats only outrebounded Robert Morris by four caroms.
It was another balanced scoring effort for the Colonials, who registered 1.12 points per possession in the win. Seven players scored, led by Lucky Jones’ 15 points. Also fitting, Robert Morris was perfect at the line, draining all 14 of their free throw attempts. They surely needed every one of those to make history on Tuesday night.
We have a feeling Andy Toole will be giving a lot more interviews down the road.
For some postgame reaction and reading, we strongly suggest A Sea of Blue’s reaction to the loss, followed by some angry Blue Blue Nation comments.
I sat down with Glenn Logan of A Sea With Blue to ask a few questions about John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats, who found themselves on the outside looking in for the NCAA tournament. Ken Pomeroy has them as the fifth best team to miss out on the Big Dance. As a result, Robert Morris will be hosting Kentucky in the first round of the NIT Tournament, since the Rupp Arena couldn’t find enough employees to operate a soda and popcorn machine tonight.
The Colonials will get a once in a lifetime opportunity to host the defending NCAA champions in their little 3,100 seat gym known as The Chuck. It should make for fascinating television on ESPN tonight at 7:30 PM! (For my answers to Glenn’s questions regarding Robert Morris, go here.)
Onto my Q&A with Glenn:
Ryan: With what you’ve seen regarding the team recently, do you expect them to be motivated to play at Robert Morris in a 3,100 seat gym? Will anyone on the team actually care, other than maybe Calipari’s family who may or may not still be in Moon Township?
A Sea of Blue: Honestly, this team is like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates made manifest, and on steroids — you never know what you’re gonna get. Calipari doesn’t know, and if he doesn’t, there’s no way your humble correspondent and Kentucky blogger could divine what motivates this bunch. I know it’s a frustrating answer, and the truth is, some of them, and maybe all of them really do care, and will play their hearts out. I just can’t vouch for all of them, and even if they do care, their execution is so incredibly hit-or-miss, it’s just hard to say what will happen.
What I will say is that if an opposing squad is willing to consistently execute sharply and has a modicum of talent, they can beat this Kentucky team. But if you give the Wildcats confidence and let them get on a roll, they can crush almost anyone on a given night. It’s just about as impossible to predict as the weather around here. So you may see a bunch of future NBA players dunking and making shots and looking like the Miami Heat. Or, you might see a group that looks like an eccentric AAU team, throwing the ball at random into the stands as if it were radioactive. Your guess is as good as mine, and I mean that in all sincerity.
Ryan: In your opinion, what have been the biggest reasons for Kentucky’s downfall late in the season? Obviously, things got worst with Noel’s knee injury, but was this team truly lacking a natural leader? Or do you feel their inconsistent guard play has led to their inconsistency?
A Sea of Blue: The biggest reason is simple — they can’t shoot. This team is incapable of consistently making a shot outside of eight feet. If Archie Goodwin can’t get to the rim, he can’t score. Alex Poythress can shoot, but he won’t. Julius Mays can shoot sometimes, but he’s undersized and needs help to get a shot. Kyle Wiltjer is in a season-long slump that shows no sign of abating. Ryan Harrow’s confidence is so fragile that if an opposing player calls him a dirty name, he’s likely to go 2 for 15.
Julius Mays tries to lead, and does a decent job. Unfortunately, the rest of them don’t seem to want to follow, and Julius just can’t be forceful enough to snap them out of their funk. Willie Cauley-Stein will play hard and do good things, but he’s raw and can’t shoot free throws. It’s just a mess.
Noel was such a huge intimidator in the paint. He made several teams so nervous with his shot blocking that they literally gave up, and tried to beat us with midrange shots. He was perhaps the greatest 6’10” athlete ever to stride the planet, and I mean that in all sincerity and with due respect to Dwight Howard. His quickness was not of this Earth. He was #10 in block % and #73 in steals % nationally, something never before seen in college basketball, and he didn’t even get to finish the season. His offensive game was raw, but a better shot blocker has never graced a college court. We would not be in the NIT if he were available. He could make teams quail just by taking the court, he was that threatening, and he played all out, all the time.
Kentucky’s guard play can best be described as follows: A quick, talented point guard with fragile confidence who’s as likely to pass the ball to get rid of it as to any real purpose, and a shooting guard of surpassing athletic talent who can’t shoot and turns the ball over 21% of his touches. The third guard is an undersized 2 guard who shoots it well, but can’t get his own shot.
Ryan: The Colonials lack players with any real size down low, so do you expect Calipari to exploit this mismatch agasinst Robert Morris with a heavy dose of Wiltjer, Poythress, and Cauley-Stein? Is there any way for a small team to counter Kentucky’s size?
A Sea of Blue: Calipari will try to exploit the Colonials size — who wouldn’t? Cauley-Stein is a superb athlete and 7’0″ tall, so we’re going to go to him early and often. Unfortunately, if you have enough fouls, you can just put him on the line, where he shoots under 50%. Alex Poythress is a shrinking violet, although if you don’t intimidate him early, he can lose his mind and go off for 20 and 12. He’s best described by Tubby Smith’s former quip about Kelenna Azibuike: “Looks like Tarzan. Plays like Jane.”
Goodwin is the one player that you can’t account for, because if he somehow realizes what you are doing, he can kill you by getting in the paint. The problem is, he doesn’t seem to know how to play under enough control to avoid help charges consistently, so if you can catch him a few times, you can get him in foul trouble. Also, if you don’t break Harrrow’s confidence down early, he can kill you getting into the paint and get on a roll shooting the ball. You don’t want that.
Ryan: Do you have a prediction for the game? Do you feel the Wildcats are in serious danger of getting upset?
A Sea of Blue: Honestly, I have nothing. We could win, or lose, by 20. This team is a mystery even to themselves, and there is simply no way I can predict anything about them. Even Coach Cal has literally thrown up his hands and accepted the simple fact that he has a better chance of winning the Powerball Lottery than predicting what these guys will produce on a given night.
We beat one of the best teams in the nation the Saturday before last, then turned around six days later and got blown out by a 16-16 team that was even younger than we are, and the game was never close. This Kentucky team could probably confound God himself, and therefore any prediction is far beyond my humble intellect.
Thanks again to Glenn for stopping by and be sure to follow A Sea of Blue on Twitter here. And don’t forget to tune in tonight, in what will be the most important game Robert Morris has ever played on its Moon Township campus. Rocky, meet Apollo Creed!