Sometimes a team (Virginia) is just meant to lose a game. When the opposing team’s 5th scoring option (Louisville’s Mangok Mathiang) calmly swishes the game winning 15 footer with 2.7 seconds left, then it’s one of those times. This was Louisville’s game to win, and a great game to watch. These were two well-coached, hard-nosed team battling it out throughout the night, neither wilting under the pressure, each team hitting clutch shots down the stretch. Virginia will benefit from this game as they head in to tournament play if they can use the rotten feeling of losing a game on an opposing team’s home court as motivation.
As Winter hangs on to its last, cold breath and the sun climbs higher and higher with its welcome sign that spring is indeed on the horizon, the college basketball regular season has come down to its last weekend. Fans of Kentucky and Virginia are no doubt looking forward to tournament play almost as much as the warmer, longer spring days, maybe more. The Wildcats, 30-0, should complete a remarkable undefeated regular season as it hosts the Florida Gators at Rupp Arena this afternoon. Later today, the Cavaliers, 28-1, will play at Louisville in a more interesting match-up on paper. But with the regular season now a foregone conclusion, the more compelling storylines for the top two teams in the country at this point are this: For Virginia, with Justin Anderson to miss additional time due to appendectomy surgery this week, have the Cavaliers decided ‘so be it’ and now plan to move on through tournament play without him? If the last seven games are any indication, the answer is ‘yes’. Virginia is simply deeper, tougher, and more resilient than its parts. They know who they are, they are tested, and they will not be deterred by the absence of one player. If they have to win it without Anderson, they will and they know they can.
For Kentucky, the most talented and maybe the best team in the country, could the Wildcats benefit from a loss before the NCAA tournament? (And thus relieve some of the legacy pressure to go undefeated, last accomplished by the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers.) The answer, if you’re a true Kentucky blue blood, and more importantly, if you suit up in one of those vaunted uniforms (no matter how young or inexperienced a player you are ) that spells K-E-N-T-U-C-K-Y on the front, is a resounding ‘NO’.
Bring on spring! Bring on the tournaments!
The common thread with championship-caliber teams is that they are all tested at some point, whether it’s overcoming a deficit during an elimination game or overcoming an injury or two. Even the last unbeaten college basketball team, the 32-0 1976 Indiana Hoosiers, had to overcome a 6 point halftime deficit to Michigan in the championship game. Earlier in the ‘76 tournament, Indiana had in fact trailed Alabama, 69-68, with just over two minutes remaining. No matter the adversity or the hostile environment, resilient teams always have the wherewithal, the maturity, and the championship mettle to come through. And make no mistake, Virginia is being tested at the moment with losses to Justin Anderson and now London Perrantes after a scary on-court head collision with Malcolm Brogdon during the Florida State game. The Silver Lining to all of this is that, should Virginia manage to have both Anderson and Perrantes back at full-strength in time for the ACC and, more importantly, NCAA tournaments, they will be a tough team to beat. This is a mature team. Their pack line defense has thus far carried the team through this tough, injury depleted stretch, covering up for the missing offensive firepower from Anderson and now the steady floor leadership from Perrantes. The bottom line is that championships are not easy. They are hard. Kentucky, as good as they are, (and they are really good), has not been tested. Their time will come.