Notre Dame-Kentucky was special. Even in the annals of special games, I felt like it was truly special.
After all, it was the most-watched cable TV broadcast of college basketball of all time, no small feat given last year’s national semifinals both aired on cable.
But merely talking about how many watched it does that game a disservice. And yes, I’m biased. I’m a Notre Dame fan. That Kentucky game was as close as ND basketball has come in my lifetime to really, honestly being a power program. It still stings that the Irish lost.
That game had so many layers to it. The most obvious layer to the outside observer was the dichotomy between the two programs.
Kentucky is known as the mercenary program, shuffling one-and-done players in and out each year and making a mockery of college basketball. (This year’s team doesn’t fit that mold as easily as past teams do, but for the sake of the narrative, few pointed that out.)
Notre Dame, of course, is the school that refuses to play ball in the cesspool of college basketball recruiting. Some may dispute the ‘do it the right way’ reputation the school has, but again, for the sake of the narrative, that’s how ND was portrayed. Their best two players were seniors. Three of their five starters had missed games for academic reasons during their career, something you’d never expect to hear at Kentucky. The roles in the morality play were clear.
The roles in the basketball game were clear, too. Notre Dame was small. They had no depth. Against the powerful front line of Kentucky, their move was clear: Bombs away from the outside and hope to catch fire. Kentucky was going to lock down the paint defensively, dominate the paint offensively and would need both a poor performance themselves and a near-perfect performance by ND to lose.
But a funny thing happened on the way to that narrative: The opposite was true.
It was Notre Dame who controlled the paint offensively, in a manner of speaking. By staying in constant motion with the ball and not putting anyone in the paint, the Irish kept UK from gaining a foothold there either. Their ball movement created attacking opportunities at the rim, and ND delivered. Time and time again the Irish went in for layups. They scored 20 of their first 26 second-half points on dunks or layups.
ND led for much of the way, as it turned out. At one point they got up by six. They did this all while shooting 4/14 from three-point land. There were a couple in there that were probably attributable to poor shot selection or UK’s defense, but many of the misses were the same wide-open looks ND’s gotten for itself all year. So much for needing to catch fire.
It turned out — and this really should be being addressed more — that it was, in fact, Kentucky that needed to play perfectly, at least over the last 12 minutes, to win. UK did not miss a field goal in that span. They hit their last six free throws. They did everything well when it mattered most, as you’d expect a championship team to do. It was very impressive.
My heart broke just a little bit when Jackson committed a blocking foul with six seconds left that allowed UK to hit the winning free throws, somewhat anticlimactically. It broke a little bit more when Jerian Grant’s desperation trey from the corner — a shot that if you watch it, it’s a freakin’ miracle he even got it off at all — went long. It didn’t break because Notre Dame missed out on what would have been the greatest win in its basketball history, and its greatest men’s sports win, period, in probably 20 years. It broke because I wanted to watch these guys play again.
Notre Dame was an absolute treat to anyone who loves basketball this year. While the ongoing media gripe this year was that college hoops is unwatchable these days, ND played a beautiful brand of basketball, one that I, for one, feel incredibly fortunate to have seen.
There was a sequence against UNC in the ACC title game that summed it up better than I ever could. ND was in the midst of rallying from down 64-56 with 8 minutes left when Bonzie Colson came up with a loose ball and batted it over to Jerian Grant in the left corner. Grant whipped it to Pat Connaughton at the top of the key, who whipped it to Demetrius Jackson at the elbow, who whipped it to Steve Vasturia in the right corner for a wide open three-pointer that tied it.
That whole sequence took 2 seconds. ND never looked back. It was dream basketball, beatiful hoops that would be seen again when the Irish eviscerated Wichita State in the Sweet 16 with the greatest 15-minute stretch of play I’ve ever seen from any team in my entire life.
ND really and truly reached a different level with me over the last few weeks. I loved those guys, and loved watching them play, so much that it honestly bummed me out just as much that I wouldn’t get to see them anymore as it did that they fell short of the Final Four.
These are guys that deserved every bit of love they got, and probably more. The best tribute I can pay them is that I couldn’t pick a favorite player for most of the year. At times, each of the five starters save Auguste had claims to the title (and, naturally, Auguste would start climbing that chart himself with incredible play in the second weekend of the tournament). Connaughton and Grant were the kinds of leaders college sports fans hardly ever get to see. And we got two in the same class? What had we done to deserve that?
More importantly, all were great kids. Outside of the academic missteps, none of the ND players have been involved in anything to suggest they’re anything less than great kids. It’s a tribute to Mike Brey that he has consistently attracted kids of high character to his program the last 15 years. Grant and Connaughton go in the books as probably two of my favorite four ND athletes of all time for everything they brought to us. And there’s plenty of time for Jackson, Auguste and Vasturia, along with Colson, VJ Beachem, and the next crop of Irish, to start building their own legacy.
The last thing that made that game such a treat was Kentucky, believe it or not. Make no mistake about it: John Calipari is a sleazebag. To his credit, he does appear to have his athletes’ best interests at heart, but he’s still a sleazebag. However, his players aren’t. I was struck after the game with how little ill will I held towards the guys wearing blue and white. Normally I find excuses to hate everyone on the other team after such a game. Maybe I’m growing, but more likely it’s that the UK players impressed me. I don’t remember one time seeing anything that approached what you might call dirty or cheap play. I don’t remember one time seeing a player whine for a call from the refs. Even Calipari, by his standards, seemed to be on good behavior. It was a good, clean, classic game played by two excellent teams. It was, between the lines anyway, everything college sports wants to be about.
That’s what made that game so special to me, and why, once the nagging pain from the loss subsides — eventually it will, I think — I will feel very lucky to have witnessed it and to have had a rooting interest.