Wildcats pass Ivy League test—By Dr. John Huang
(LEXINGTON, Ky.) – From a purely historical perspective, Yale and Kentucky are on the opposite sides of the college basketball spectrum.
On one hand, you have Yale—the Ivy League school founded in 1701—with its rich and regal academic tradition. As the home to numerous Rhodes Scholars and five past U.S. Presidents, the university located in New Haven, Connecticut, consistently ranks at the top of the scholastic elite.
On the other hand, you have Kentucky—a perennial basketball powerhouse with its legion of passionate fans. Boasting a litany of NBA draft picks and a winning tradition like no other, the school in Lexington, Kentucky, is firmly planted atop the college basketball mountain.
When Yale and Kentucky collide on the basketball court, then, you’d expect a bit of a mismatch. It’s only happened twice before. The first meeting came in 1961, a 79 – 58 victory in Lexington. The second meeting occurred this afternoon in Rupp Arena, another win by the No. 16-ranked Wildcats, this time by another closer-than-expected score of 69 – 59.
Oscar Tshiebwe exploded with a 22-point second half barrage, putting the Wildcats on his back, and turning a close game into a “comfortable” 10-point win. Surviving multiple double and triple teams, the returning National Player of the Year did what he does best—grabbing errant balls around the rim and sinking contested one to two-footers around the basket. Oscar finished with 28 points and 12 boards on the afternoon.
After Yale took a 33 – 30 lead less than a minute into the second half, Tshiebwe went to work.
“Our team needed that,” Oscar answered, when asked about his muscle-flexing second half. “We went to the locker room, I told them, ‘Throw me the ball—even if they double team me, I’ll kick it out. If they don’t double me, then I’m going to work.’ I don’t think they’ll be many who could stop me…They threw me the ball, and it was easy. They figured out they couldn’t guard me.”
Yale head coach James Jones knows full well the challenges of taking on these basketball-rich behemoths. In his twenty-fourth year at the helm, he’s no stranger to coaching against opposing players who are bigger, faster, stronger, and more talented than his own. That doesn’t mean he’ll just take the appearance money and run. Although the playing field isn’t necessarily level, his Bulldogs always manage to somehow compete against the big boys.
“Have you seen Space Jam?” Coach Jones kiddingly explained. “Michael Jordan had that secret sauce. We have 18 to 22-year-old kids. We do our best to try and coach them and put them in the right place to be successful. I’ve been very fortunate. There aren’t any better kids on the planet. They might be as good as my guys, but I can’t imagine there are people who are better people.”
Reading further into that statement, you’d have to wonder why Kentucky (7 – 2) didn’t mop the floor with another overmatched, albeit good, group of kids. The reality is that Calipari’s team remains a work in progress. So many questions abound. Is Oscar fully healthy, why don’t the best shooters take most of the shots, what’s going on with Jacob Toppin, why doesn’t Chris Livingston play the four position more, why is Ugonna pulled every time he breathes or burps wrong, are CJ Fredrick and Daimion Collins still around, who really is the point guard of the future for this team?
For now, Sahvir Wheeler remains the answer to that last—and perhaps most perplexing--question. The senior transfer takes a lot of flak but remains resolute in terms of confidence and attitude. He knows he’s a key component of this team’s success. That means getting Oscar the ball, and he understands he’s the one to do it.
“I can get [Oscar] easier shots,” Wheeler acknowledged. “It was Oscar’s night. He was on fire. That is the National Player of the Year. He put on that kind of performance. It was big time for him. It was big time for us.”
I’m not sure how big-time a ten-point win at home over an Ivy League school means to the rest of the college basketball world. Remember, this ain’t no spelling bee. I’ll give Wheeler and the team a passing grade for now. It’s up to Calipari to coach ‘em up before final exams in March.