CHICAGO – In the main arena bowl at the United Center, the band struck up as halftime drew to an end. Cheers followed. Evidently there had been sufficient cleanup of all the UCLA blood and dignity spilled on the court that it was deemed safe for the Kentucky basketball team to return to the killing floor. And at this moment, three members of the school’s spirit squad popped out of a room off a hallway in the back. Their problem hit them. They had left the Wildcats without pom aid.
“That’s our fight song,” one of the girls said. “Oops. I think we missed it.”
And that was it. On the list of Kentucky’s imperfections Saturday, that was the beginning and the end. The rest was brutish, unmerciful and just completely absurd, this 83-44 victory that transcended all metaphors for demolition or involuntary surgeries. This was something far, far more terrifying, something we had not seen this insensate leviathan accomplish before: The Wildcats destroyed a team’s hope. That is a very hard thing to do against athletes conditioned to believe all things are possible at all times.
And the nation’s No. 1 team nevertheless made emphatically clear to a very respectable major college basketball program: No, there is no chance for you, that nothing is possible but sorrow and darkness and a whole lot of badly missed basketball shots.
If you think Kentucky will get beat this season, you are not thinking unreasonably. It is also time to prepare for the eventuality that you may be wrong. The Wildcats are now competing only against their own ability to crush the will out of every team that happens across their path.
"As it grows, they’re going to get hungrier with it," UCLA coach Steve Alford said. "Just look at their demeanor. This thing reaches 18, 19, 20 in a row, you may not get them."
Bad as it had been for others this year, it was never bad like this. Before UCLA scored a point, a single, solitary point, Kentucky posted 24. The Bruins finished the first half with seven points. Seven. They wound up averaging 0.2 points per possession before halftime. It was the lowest-scoring half by a Kentucky opponent since Dec. 28, 1943. Seriously: 1943. No one had been this feckless against this program since before the Potsdam Declaration.
For a good 16 minutes of game action, the courtside stat monitors were stuck on the pregame screen, the score static at 0-0. It was a simpler time for UCLA, back then. A time of innocence and wonder. It was a better time. It is a long, long time ago now.
"They took our confidence out right at the beginning,” said Bruins guard Bryce Alford, who by the middle of the first half was bent over, exhausted, like he’d been running through a sandstorm. "And they put it to us from then on."
So this is now the horrifying prospect facing college basketball. It is one thing to get beaten by Kentucky; it is another thing to have your faith driven from you.
In late November, at the Champions Classic, Kansas lost to the Wildcats by 32 points. For the Jayhawks, the second half was a visit to a fireworks barn after someone threw a lit torch inside. But midway through the first half of that game in Indianapolis, the Kentucky lead remained in single digits. Kansas’ deficit at the intermission was a manageable 10 points. The Jayhawks had a chance. Realistic or not, they had a chance. Last Saturday in Rupp Arena, North Carolina had a chance, too, hovering within two possessions until a late first-half swoon undermined everything.
Both of those teams may be better and deeper and more experienced than UCLA, which looked ill-prepared to handle this scenario in every imaginable way. Alford joked that his program had three players take medical hardships while Kentucky had three players who could have entered the NBA draft, but decided to come back instead.
Still, the Bruins have players. They have five-star prospects of their own. And John Calipari’s crew reached down their throats and extracted their souls.
“We have to keep playing against ourselves,” said Kentucky guard Devin Booker, who was the leading scorer with 19 points in a mere 16 minutes. “Coach always stresses to us that we’re not playing against the other team. We’re playing against ourselves.”
So there it is: Kentucky feels the only measure of its greatness is Kentucky. It’s the latest of Calipari’s mantras, purposefully thrown out to the world for all to seize upon, and it sounded absolutely true by Saturday evening. "As we go forward, we’ve got one thing: Let’s make this world-class," Calipari said. "How do we become that world-class team? World-class teams play against themselves. They don't play against the opponents."
As they shook hands after the final buzzer, Calipari tried to offer Alford a measure of reassurance. Kentucky’s coach told his counterpart that it was about as good as his team could play, that UCLA caught the Wildcats on their best day. A little while later, Calipari began the breakdown of his team’s deficiencies that seems almost patronizing at this point. Karl Towns needed to play better. (He had 10 rebounds in 20 minutes and blocked one shot clear into Winnetka.) After UCLA grabbed 20 offensive boards, Kentucky was "the worst defensive rebounding tall team in the history of basketball" in the estimation of its coach. (The Wildcats still outscored the Bruins on second-chance points by eight.) Calipari insisted the lurching efforts against Columbia and Buffalo and Boston demonstrated that the Wildcats aren’t "machines" or "computers."
On that last bit, the losing coach disagreed. They have everything, Alford said. They have no weaknesses, Alford said. And they are clinical enough and good enough defensively to win every game they play, he said.
"You’re 12-0," Alford said. "What’s the win margin? Twenty-eight points coming into tonight? That didn’t go down. You’ve got a win margin of 30-plus points and you’ve played 12 games and you’ve played the likes of Kansas and UCLA and Providence and Texas. You’ve got a target on your back the size of the state of Kentucky the way it is. Cal has got them playing at a very high level, believing in what they do. I don’t know of too many teams in my career, that I’ve coached against, that have been any better."
On Saturday, Kentucky very swiftly smashed the hope of one particular team into atoms. And any other teams watching may have felt their highest aspirations wither by proxy.
The No. 1 team in the country had beat teams before. This was something else. Even poor Joe Bruin, UCLA’s ursine mascot, was lashed with mockery by a Kentucky fan standing above an arena tunnel. This dismantling was to be thorough and unceasing. There would be no bear pause.
"Hopefully we see them again,” UCLA forward Kevon Looney said, taking one last gallant stand against good sense. "That was embarrassing. We want another stab at it."
A few moments later, after his own precocious freshman left the room, Alford made an honest coaching correction. "I appreciate Kevon’s enthusiasm," the UCLA coach said, "but not right now." He recognized too well the one positive to come out of Saturday.
When dealing with Kentucky, the best part is getting out of its way.