CLEVELAND — When the slaughter finally ended, and Kentucky was 37-0 instead of 36-1, Daxter Miles Jr. sat bare chested on a chair, his foot removed from his mouth.
“Hey man, Kentucky played great,” he said after Kentucky’s 78-39 rout in the Midwest Region semifinals Thursday.
“They played great.”
How would you explain how you guys played tonight?
“They played great.”
Over and over and over again, the kid who guaranteed 36-1 said: “They played great.”
Were they extra motivated by what you said?
“They played great. We didn’t play to our best. They just played great.”
In his Maddest March dream, West Virginia coach Bob Huggins would summon 13 ghosts of the late Smokin’ Joe Frazier, clad them in sneakers and West Virginia jerseys and send them raging across the ring at Kentucky.
They would play with no fear, which is the only way you play Kentucky, and they would play to win, from one end of the court to the other, for all 40 minutes. They would play with their hair on fire, play as if John Calipari and Karl-Anthony Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein had stolen their lunch money, play as if their lives were on the line, and not only their college basketball lives. They would rattle Kentucky, wear them to a frazzle physically and spiritually with their vulture press.
Sometimes, once in a while, heart will beat talent, and a lesser team that dares to fire a slingshot into the heart of March Madness can captivate the country and pull off one of those forever Villanova upsets.
But sometimes, an awakened, enraged Goliath, his machismo questioned, will sneer at the romance that the NCAA Tournament can give us, and mercilessly swat away the swarming bees buzzing all around him, trying in vain to sting him and send him home distraught without a perfect season and without a national championship.
The Mountaineers tugged on Superman’s cape, and Superman didn’t appreciate it one bit.
Miles Jr., who would have been better off dissing Ashley Judd than that wondrous college basketball team? Quieter than a church mouse (zero points). A day too late.
“We didn’t play our game … they played a lot harder than us, and they just played good,” Miles Jr. said in what amounted to a Gettysburg Address.
Did the coach or anybody say anything to you after your comments yesterday?
“Kentucky played good.”
It goes back to the old Mike Tyson line: Everybody has a plan til they get hit.
And boy, was West Virginia hit. Early and often.
This was akin to the Olympic Dream Team against the Washington Generals.
If Kentucky plays like this, so hard and so together and so above the rim and so poised and so athletically arrogant, they might as well hand the Wildcats the trophy now and play them One Shining Moment.
America keeps waiting for Kentucky to waver, to crumble under the weight of great expectations, for this Big Blue Machine to break down. It happened to Jerry Tarkanian’s UNLV at a Final Four against Duke. It happened to the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII against the Giants. It happened to Wichita State last March … against Kentucky.
Kentucky will be 40 minutes from heading back to the Final Four 38-0 when they tip off Saturday against Notre Dame (32-5), an 81-70 victor over Wichita State.
Most of America outside the Commonwealth — and outside of Louisville — keeps telling itself these are kids, all it takes is one bad night, it can happen, even if more than half of these kids will be playing in the NBA next season. These are some of the same people who hated the Yankees and Celtics and Canadiens and Wooden’s UCLA Bruins because they won all the damn time.
Calipari was a miracle worker at UMass, but if we celebrate Phil Jackson for capturing his 11 rings with Jordan and Pippen, and with Shaq and Kobe, it would be hypocritical not to acknowledge what Calipari has a chance to do with this team. A team that has bought everything he has been selling.
When Tyler Ulis lofted an alley-oop that Marcus Lee converted into a thunder jam that sent Big Blue Nation into a tizzy, the scoreboard read 18-2. As the first half was coming to a merciless close, BillyDee Williams rolled to the hoop and became a BillyDee Williams stuffed sandwich between the long arms of Trey Lyles on one side and Cauley-Stein on the other. The arena roared.
“We’d love to get a crack at them, to prove to everybody how good we are,” Notre Dame big man Zach Auguste said in the Irish locker room.
“Our goal is to win the national championship, and that’s where we’re headed to.
“We’ve been overlooked since Day 1, and we continue to prove the doubters wrong, and that’s something we’re gonna continue to do.”
After watching the first half of Kentucky-West Virginia with his teammates before heading back to the team hotel, Auguste could not be reached for comment.
On the white board inside the West Virginia locker room, at the bottom, you saw this in blue magic marker: PLAY HARDER. And inside a square box: 36-1. For Daxter Miles Jr., misery loves company.