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Kentucky-UConn Garden Party—an NBA Fan’s Perspective

 

Picture 11A buddy from work (a Kentucky native) organized an outing to Wednesday night’s Kentucky-UConn game at Madison Square Garden. I’ve been to a bunch of Knicks games over the last three years, and I hadn’t realized how much I’d come to associate MSG with dead crowds, empty seats and so-so NBA basketball.

Because on Thursday night, the Garden rocked. And it caught me completely by surprise.

It was clear on the way to the arena that the crowd had huge potential. We stopped at a UK alumni event at a bar near MSG on the way and made a U-turn because the crowd of blue sweatshirt-wearing people who were clearly not from New York City was overflowing into the street. Kentucky fans were drinking on the sidewalk. They had no concept that drinking on the sidewalk might be illegal. It was awesome.

And these people traveled, from Kentucky, for this one game. Hell, two of the people in our group of eight had traveled from out of state (one from Lexington, the other from Washington, D.C.).

That is devotion. This was a Wednesday night. This was not a Saturday college football game you could use an excuse for a weekend getaway. These people took days off from work to come to New York City and watch a non-conference college game.

We got to MSG close to halftime of the undercard (Georgia-St. John’s), and it felt like a Knicks game. The stands were half full and people were barely paying attention to the game (One guy in our group remarked, “I keep looking up and they are still playing basketball”). But as the second half wound down, you could feel the atmosphere changing. People wearing dueling shades of blue were taking their seats. You could hear chants of “Let’s Go UConn!” and “C-A-T-S, Cats, Cats, Cats!” from the walkways inside the arena.

It dawned on me as the players warmed up that I had never been to a neutral court game before. And I cannot believe it took me this long. Let me tell you: Neutral court games that can draw are awesome. To say fans were talking trash to each other  is an understatement.

And they were talking trash because they sensed the historical importance of the game. They understood that these are two of the premier programs in NCAA history, and that they may not meet again for a decade. (They had only met once before). This game mattered. It mattered because of the programs, the coaches, the star player (we’ll get to him) and because it was taking place in New York.

Watching a game like this amid a divided crowd is a different experience from anything the NBA can ever offer. The best way to explain it is this: When the C’s are rolling in Boston, the fans go crazy together. It’s a jovial and positive communal experience. The entire arena rocks together, cheers together and gets quiet and dejected together as the game ebbs and flows. There are very few visiting fans—if any—at which the rowdiest among us can direct our bragging/taunting/joking/projectiles.

This is not true at a neutral court game. There is always someone to taunt, including perhaps the person right next to you. Kentucky roared out to a 12-0 lead, and the UK fans were delirious. The other half of the crowd just sat there, stunned. They were targets for the UK fans. One guy about 10 seats to my right (a guy way too old to be acting like this) stood up, saw a UConn fan in his twenties about 30 feet away (wearing an Okafor jersey) and yelled, “You gonna score tonight, boys?” (And he dragged out the word “booooooyyys” to emphasize that he was, in fact, saying “boys” and not “men”).

The UConn fan smirked and yelled back, “What? You haven’t won anything. Sit down!” A drunken young UK fan a few rows in front of the older fellow took up his defense, and the two young guys (separated by about 10 seats and two rows) spent the entire first half ripping on each other. (Unfortunately, they were not very creative. They didn’t get much beyond “Sit your ass down!” and “Scoreboard!” The UK guy once rubbed his eyes and put on his sad face, miming “Are you gonna cry about it?” The bird made a few appearances).

UConn responded with something like a 24-6 run, and the dynamic completely flipped. The UConn fans were cupping their ears and doing their whole, “What? I can’t hear you now!” thing and the UK fans were stunned.

It seemed like a fight could break out at any time. You know what the cool thing about it was, though? There was only one fight. The trash talk verged into aggressive territory a few times, but a lot of the guys spewing it had knowing smiles on their faces. They understood that what they were dishing and taking was part of the experience each of them had come to the stadium to have. In a way, the situation was less dangerous and combustible than the one that happens when a group of fans of the home team decide  to torment one or two fans of the visiting team—something we saw several times during the Major League Baseball playoffs this season. That is gutless bullying designed to ruin someone’s experience.

This sort of equal strength trash-talking—this was the experience.

As we were leaving the arena, we walked by a group of dejected young UConn fans who were staring into their phones texting in effort to avoid eye contact the happy UK groups walked by. An hour earlier, this particular UConn crew had been itching for some verbal sparring. They were barrel-chested 20-somethings with way-too-groomed beards, earrings and backwards hats they had been tossing at people below them before the game. (Yes, they were throwing their own hats). Now they were silent.

A UK couple walking by cheered and pointed at them. The biggest UConn guy stood up and said something to the girl in the couple. I couldn’t catch it, but I think he said something like, “You’re lucky that [expletive] is with you, honey,” implying that his gentlemanly respect for women (an attribute all men with pencil-thin beards share) preventing him from attacking the woman’s boyfriend. She stopped in her tracks and I thought she was about to enter finger-wagging mode. Instead, she leaned over the railing and whispered something in his ear. The two started laughing and high-fived. Then she left.

Awesome crowd.

Oh, this is a basketball blog? Some observations from a very, very, very distant fan of college hoops (but also a Connecticut native who generally knows what’s going on with UConn):

• UK is a better team than UConn, and the gap will probably grow by the end of the season. UConn really has only two guys who can score (Jerome Dyson and Kemba Walker), and their skill sets overlap. They have no post game. Four years at UConn, and Stanley Robinson still really doesn’t know how to play offense. Every UConn halfcourt possession seemed like terribly hard work.

Kentucky, on the other hand, had a much easier time generating open looks. They just have better players. If Coach Cal is as good as he thinks he is, this team should be a monster by March. DeMarcus Cousins played well for about five minutes on Thursday. If he plays well for 15 minutes during a March game, watch out.

On the other hand, UConn is UConn. They don’t have the interior talent or depth to be a truly great team, and they don’t have anyone who can shoot threes. Lots of ugly, physical games coming up for the Huskies this season.

• John Wall is basically as good as the hype. Athletically, he’s off the charts. His quickness to the ball pursuing steals on defense seemed to surprise UConn’s players. During crunch time, the UK offense stalled and Wall just took over the game. He made two straight isolation pull-ups in the last 4:00—NBA-level shots, but taken over much smaller players than he’ll usually face in the league. Still—impressive.  UConn’s guards couldn’t defend him.

• After those shots, the Huskies switched Robinson—a 6’9” forward—onto Wall, and it deterred him from shooting. Down 61-60 with less than a minute to go, Calipari called timeout and drew up a motion offense play that used a dribble hand-off/pitch to give Wall some space from Robinson and get him moving as he received the ball. It worked beautifully; Wall streaked down the left side, rose up and nailed a lay-up on the left side of the rim, plus the foul.

As my Kentucky buddy noted, he didn’t shoot the lay-up left-handed. He didn’t have to. He hung in the air as the defender bounced off of him, gathered himself and shot a two-handed lay-up. A strong, controlled and athletic play.

• Kemba Walker: Please stop talking trash after every single thing you do. It’s embarrassing.

• I had forgotten how repetitive college cheers are. I must have heard the “C-A-T-S, Cats, Cats, Cats!” cheer 100 times during the game. Literally. And Kentucky can do better than having half its cheerleaders holding up a sign that reads “Blue” (cueing one side of the crowd to chant “Blue!”) while the other cheerleaders follow by holding up a sign that says “White” (cueing the corresponding cheer).

I sort of felt like I was in a nursery school class learning the names of colors. (And that is not a joke about Kentucky. Just about the cheer. UConn is similarly uncreative).

• In any case: Great atmosphere, mediocre hoops. The NBA is better basketball. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

  • Jay P

    Anyone who knows basketball would agree with you, the NBA is better basketball, can’t argue it.

    But there’s something about watching college hoops, especially come March, they dive for every ball, they leave everything on the court. There’s nothing better than watching that bench player on the team, who wont ever make it to the pros, pore his blood, sweat, and tears into every possession, because once he graduates, he knows this will probably be the end of his basketball career. It’s the game, the way it was meant to be played.

    As much as I love the NBA, although the skill level is higher, and the basketball is better, there is nothing that compares to March Madness.

  • Mike

    Love, love, love this post.

    I watched the game on TV and you could feel the bizarre energy. I was impressed by the level of talent of some of those young wildcats, but Cousins looks like a project with a bad attitude. If he is a top-5 pick put in a bad situation with no veterans, his career will be short.

    Hearing Dickie-V fall all over himself about Wall got old, but he looks like a pretty impressive combination of OJ Mayo and Derek Rose (he lacks Mayo’s range and Rose’s natural passing ability).

    But what I really want to know is how did Patrick Patterson look live? Is he on the short side? He looked pretty chiseled on TV and his stroke from 25 feet looked like it had some promise. I realize that it is a small sample size, but do you think he is an NBA talent?

  • http://Aol.com Matt

    Wall is the real deal. I love uk basketball. I have watched our program stager…now with CAL. And all his recruites we will win a boa load of games. Can’t wait till march! On a sad note wall is a one and done and will replace derek rose as far as chatter and potential. He does everything rose did and dose better. The kid is money!

  • http://www.celticshub.com Zach Lowe

    @Patterson: Looks OK. Not great, but he was a bit lost in Wednesday’s game. He’s not the primary low post guy (Cousins is now), but he has developed a college three, which will serve him well in the NBA.

  • KY Celts fan

    Loved the write up, Zach! A group of my college friends all went up for the game (most from Lexington, but one from Atlanta and another from Kansas). I couldn’t afford the trip so I had to settle for ESPN (which, for anyone who watched it, was a frustration unto itself).

    Wall is a beast, everyone knows that. Patterson works hard and it shows. There’s a reason why he’s a team leading scorer (I believe). He’ll be a good role player in the NBA. Yea, he’s a little small, but he makes up for it and then some. Think of him as Powe with a jump shot, or Davis with a post game. Cousins is going to be amazing, too. Everything about him reminds me of Josh Smith. He even looks like him.

    BTW, Zach, Lexington is a mecca for cheerleading, on all levels. The UK cheerleaders have won 17 national titles. So they may be generic cheers, but they know how to bring it.

    I love the C’s. But I’ve only been an NBA fan for a few years. I’ve grown up in Lexington and still live here. To me, there is nothing better than Wildcats basketball, especially when we’re rolling over Duke.

  • http://www.celticshub.com Zach Lowe

    @KY Celts: My UK-fan buddies agreed that UK brought the B (or C) team cheerleaders for this game. They were telling stories about how, umm, incredibly talented the regular cheerleaders are—all the crazy stunts they do—and we saw none. C-teamers.

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