Quick now: John Calipari’s most impressive victory?
Easy. Beating Kansas in the 2012 NCAA title game, finally delivering his national championship, sending thousands of UK fans into the streets of the Big Easy to celebrate a win that was anything but.
Most disappointing defeat?
Maybe not as simple an answer, but most likely would say the loss in the 2015 Final Four to Wisconsin. No championship. No perfection. No slice of immortality. An ugly 38-1.
If you made a list within both categories of Also Eligible games, there’s one team that definitely makes both, and that would be the one lying in wait in Morgantown. The West Virginia Mountaineers Saturday night will welcome the Wildcats to Almost Heaven and try to make it a Living Hell.
They did it once before, albeit on a neutral site.
If the 2015 loss is the most disappointing, the 2010 setback in the East Region final is a close second. That UK team featured a pair of future NBA All-Stars in John Wall and Boogie Cousins, along with other NBA veterans-to-be, Patrick Patterson and Eric Bledsoe.
But on that night in Syracuse, when Bob Huggins predictably had his team toss up a 1-3-1 zone, the Wildcats lost their collective mind.
Despite the fact that they had prepared for it, the second-ranked Cats acted as though they’d never seen such a crafty defensive formation. Instead of finding a way to dump the ball inside to Patterson or Cousins, they settled for trying to shoot over the defense, finishing 4-of-32 from the arc. Calpari did little to discourage their “bombs away” approach.
Little-known guard Joe Mazzulla also chose that evening to have the game of his life, pumping in 17 points and handling out three assists. West Virginia 73, Kentucky 66 meant Calipari’s first season in Lexington ended eight days too soon. A few weeks later, the four future pros were gone, heading for The League.
Skip ahead five years and join us in Cleveland, site of the Midwest Region semifinals. Here come the plucky, 20th-ranked Mountaineers, full of vinegar, ready to take on the top-ranked Wildcats. Freshman guard Daxter Miles, Jr., had sized up the 36-0 Wildcats and predicted they would emerge from the contest, 36-1.
Wrong. SO wrong.
With 12 minutes left in the game, WVU had made five shots. Kentucky had blocked six. Miles scored no points. Zero.
Kentucky crushed West Virginia, 78-39 and still, Huggins had no problem with Miles’ pre-game bravado. “I’m kind of happy he wasn’t hiding under a chair somewhere, you know?” Huggins said. “There’s nothing wrong with having some confidence and wanting to go out and compete. They just were way better than we were.”
Yes. And they knew it. “We said when we came in here at halftime, ‘Step on their throats,’ ” Willie Cauley-Stein said. “ ‘Don’t let them back up.’ ” And they didn’t.
Incredibly, future overall #1 draft pick Karl-Anthony Towns scored only one point in 13 minutes. No worries. Five of his teammates would score in double figures;, Cauley-Stein would score eight and gather 10 rebounds.
It was a satisfying win for the Wildcats and their fans who, two nights later, celebrated a trip to the Final Four after a last-second win over Notre Dame. The sweet memory of both victories would be erased by the loss to the Badgers.
Is it a rivalry, UK vs. WVU? Not really, not as it was at the turn of the decade, 60 years ago. Over an eight-year span, the teams would play five games, each in the old UK Invitational Tournament, with the Wildcats winning three.
From 1957 through ’59, the Mountaineers featured a silky guard named Jerry West, a homegrown talent nicknamed “Zeke from Cabin Creek,” after the stream near his hometown of Cheylan, W. Va. The future Hall-of-Famer led his team to a pair of victories over the Wildcats, scoring 33 as a senior, collaring tournament MVP honors.
Neither one of the teams that will go at it Saturday night has a Jerry West. He was, after all, the inspiration for what became the marketing symbol for the NBA. Not many call him “Zeke” any more. Instead, they call him “The Logo.”
Odds are, the Mountaineers only know of West because their coach told them tales of his greatness. Or maybe it’s a requirement of all WVU players to know (if not, it should be). Doubtful if any of the Wildcats know, either, which is a shame. But it matters little.
What’s more important is that the Cats realize how difficult things are going to get in the WVU Coliseum Saturday night. Escaping with a victory? That would be, well, Almost Heaven.