Wednesday, November 19, 2008

What Happened to Kentucky?

It's damn near impossible to fault Kentucky for losing to the No. 1 team in the country on the road, but last night wasn't just about losing. It was about a dramatic free fall from grace for the winningest program in college basketball history.

Right now, that is the face of the Kentucky basketball. Look at it. Concerned, confused and searching for answers. Last year, the Wildcats opened up with a loss to Gardner-Webb at home and never recovered. They lost their final two games of the season, but came in this year with hope. Patrick Patterson was healthy, and some talented young players were on the way. Then they lost their home opener again, this time to Virginia Military Institute. Yikes.

And from the start last night, Kentucky was in trouble. North Carolina jumped out to a 25-6 lead and never looked back. Deon Thompson was an absolute beast, scoring a career-high 20 points to pace everyone, and the junior power forward was having his way. There wasn't a damn thing any Wildcat could do about it.

Kentucky, once one of the elite programs as recently as a few seasons ago, looks just awful. The players seem as if they don't know what to do on offense, and their defense looks like a lost cause. Against VMI, Kentucky turned the ball over 25 times. At home. Against VMI. Last night, they turned it over 28 times in the Dean Dome. That's 53 turnovers in two games in case you're counting.

Patterson was the lone bright spot for the Wildcats, netting 19 points on 8 of 11 shooting and adding 11 rebounds, but his teammates had an extremely hard time getting him the ball. In fact, Kentucky's backcourt was pathetic. Completely awful. Jodie Meeks was 5 for 20 from the floor, and Michael Porter looked like anything but a Division I basketball player. The Cats have no guards, and it's sad to watch.

UNC, on the other hand, looked like a behemoth without its best player and best defender. Thompson, mentioned above, had the best game I've seen him play since he stepped foot in Chapel Hill. Kentucky had no answer for him. It was nice to see him take over with Hansbrough out.

Philadelphia boy Wayne Ellington continued to struggle from the floor, but the rare times Kentucky left him open, he made his shots with ease. His field goal percentage should only climb once Tyler comes back. And speaking of Tyler, freshman Tyler Zeller, while quiet offensively, looked rather impressive defending Patterson early on. He was denying catches, and clearly, this big man has some talent.

Unfortunately for North Carolina, Zeller was injured late the game on a hard foul. Attempting to dunk on the break, Zeller was hit and fell to the floor. As he braced himself for his fall, he landed on his left wrist, and it didn't look good. Just ask Roy:

"It doesn't look good," Williams said.

My guess is a broken left wrist, which certainly isn't good. Zeller was considered UNC's top recruit and expected to be a major contributor down the line. This could certainly slow those expectations down a bit.

The good news, however, is that UNC rolled, and several players impressed. Ty Lawson dished out 9 assists while only turning the ball over twice, looking every bit like the playmaker he was before his injury last season. Danny Green did a little bit of everything with 5 boards, 3 assists, 4 steals, a block and 6 points. And most impressive to me was freshman forward Ed Davis, who was extremely active on both ends of the court, nabbing 10 boards, 2 steals, a block and 9 points on 4 of 6 from the field. He looked extremely athletic, agile and talented.

Even freshman Larry Drew II looked confident running the point when he spelled Lawson, and Will Graves came in to nail two deep three-pointers, showing he hasn't grown shy.

And as a North Carolina fan, all that (minus the Zeller injury) was good to see. But something was missing. Somehow, this game felt hollow. Not because of anything UNC did. More because of what Kentucky couldn't do. There was a time when a Kentucky-North Carolina matchup was must-see TV. The two most winningest programs taking each other on was always sure to be a 12-round bout with an exciting finish, and a potential precursor to a Final Four matchup. But no more. Kentucky just isn't that team anymore. And it's a shame. Because a North Carolina-Kentucky game at 9 p.m. on ESPN is supposed to be something to get excited about. Now it's more like watching Penn State take on Coastal Carolina.

And that just doesn't seem right.

Update: Via The Big Lead, Zeller has a broken wrist and could be done for the year. Gay.

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