Kentucky, North Carolina is the epitome of a bewildering college basketball season

Kentucky coach John Calipari and North Carolina coach Hubert Davis had confusing seasons. (Artur Galocha/The Washington Post; AP and Getty Images)


LEXINGTON, Kentucky, and CHAPEL HILL, NC — Suppose you took a “confusion tour” to mark a confusing regular season by visiting the two most confusing empires of men’s college basketball’s rudderless winter of 2022-23. Danger could lurk. What if Kentucky and North Carolina got up just before March and resolved their confusion and left a “Confusion Tour” without confusion?

That would be inhospitable.

In such a muddled year, perhaps the tournament should have placed all 68 teams between 7th and 10th place. Kentucky and North Carolina rode amazing paths to 6th place in the East Region (Kentucky) and tournament elimination (North Carolina).

So a “confusion tour” seemed doomed when Kentucky went Feb. 25 at the Rupp Arena and crushed Auburn, 86-54. It achieved one of the strangest 20-9 records its savvy followers have ever seen. The final horn drew cheers and some appreciative applause in the adjacent Hyatt’s lounge. Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouse, with its domed bar, piano, and singers, oozes the scintillating energy that has brought it downtown, though the restaurant’s Dillon Ruby said the energy doesn’t change after losses because, “When they lose, you’re going there to forget about it, and we can get your attention very quickly.”

The menu still featured the “Calipari Roll” honoring longtime Kentucky coach John Calipari—spicy tuna, hamachi, cucumber, panko asparagus, sriracha-pickled carrots, shaved serrano, yuzu honey glaze, $24— and some people probably even ordered them.

No one had jotted (or printed) any mockery next to it.

“‘Cal pushed the right buttons! He did the optimization!’ ” was the reaction from fans, as recalled by Ryan Lemond, a 27-year-old Lexington mainstay and host on Kentucky Sports Radio and various other shows.

Damn, the confusion had left this place. The confusion had settled after a season that saw the return of 2021/22 international of the year Oscar Tshiebwe, as well as the usual other rising stars, but with bewildering losses and then bewildering wins.

What inept confusion tourism.

So on March 1st they had their seniors’ evening and honored six seniors, including Tshiebwe, who brought with him from the Democratic Republic of the Congo such a radiant heart that it sometimes seems to glow. Yes, he went and hugged every single person in the senior night line — parents, siblings, would have come to distant cousins ​​if needed. Lexington-based operatic baritone Michael Preacely sang “My Old Kentucky Home” whistling straight from the sky. Then, five minutes later, Vanderbilt lost his 7-foot centerpiece, Liam Robbins, to a season-ending leg injury. After 17 minutes, Kentucky led 28:23. It wasn’t the most artistic basketball, but it lacked confusion. “You came all the way here for this?” someone nearby may or may not have said it.

Here’s how you get this: Nearly five minutes after halftime, Vanderbilt led 46-35.

Whatever the popular diagnoses for such things may be — youth, trap play after Auburn, transfer portal, NIL, the one-and-done motif not fully defining Kentucky this year, Calipari, Kentucky’s loss of freshman point guard Cason Wallace briefly after half-time – the confusion had grown even greater. Kentucky passed Vanderbilt and led 66-64 but lost 68-66 after basketing by Jordan Wright with 42 and three seconds, the former on a shockingly unimpeded baseline drive, and the night outside fell in raindrops and raining, what the heck. hell inside.

Calipari, his national title (2012) and four Final Fours (2011, 2012, 2014, 2015) in Kentucky looking back deeper, came in and started reminding reporters to praise Vanderbilt and started talking about that Kentucky doesn’t give up and said “fine”. three times while saying, “I mean, we’re fine. I mean this team did things and played in a way and we’re shorthanded and now we’re really shorthanded and still I mean we’re going to make it. We’re fine. I’ve already said it; We can still write our own story. We are on this way. I said it before when everyone was going insane. We write our own history.”

Then he went onto the pitch for the coach’s traditional radio show, with fans traditionally waiting in the stands, and the fans applauded and he thanked them, but then, not traditionally until recently, he left in the first commercial break. “As you can see, I’m devastated,” he told the crowd. “I’m tired. This has been a tough run. So I have [assistant] Orlando Antigua to close the show.”

Much of the crowd got up and left, some carrying the basketballs they hoped to have signed.

Others, elsewhere, called the station that eternal sound of American life. “The inconsistency of this team is just amazing,” a stunned caller named Pete told Lemond and producer Billy Rutledge on Kentucky Sports Radio. “You could play anyone at this time of year and you could have no idea if they could win or lose.”

Asked about that show by phone days later, Lemond said, “The fans were furious when they lost to South Carolina [on Jan. 10], until, like, confused, until the finals against Vanderbilt, they were almost deaf. What is that [thing]. What are the stages of death?”

Statistics and thoughts began swirling through the night and into the morning shows: Kentucky went 52-3 in senior days or nights before 2020, 1-3 since. How did Kentucky lose at home to teams ranked sixth (Vanderbilt), ninth (Arkansas), and 12 (South Carolina) in the SEC? Why is Calipari apparently the only coach in the United States who appreciates long two-pointers? Why can’t a coach making anywhere near $10 million finish his post-game radio show? “He always understood what this job meant,” influential Kentucky radio host Matt Jones said the next morning, calling the departure “so disappointing.”

It might confuse a tourist when he thinks of carriage town marriages, how they can dwindle over time, the sound of an eternal voice stale. The Confusion Tour had created confusion, similar to successful whale watching, only less majestic. Kentucky would leave for Arkansas on March 4th, clearly hopeless.

On the same day North Carolina would welcome Duke – okay, not exactly Welcome per se — and the Dean E. Smith Center would be brimming with such frenzy that it would appear the Tar Heels were 27-3 rather than their dusty, inexplicable 19-11. The public address announcer introduced Chapel Hill-founded musical group Mipso with a reminder that all four musicians had stormed Franklin Street on occasion in their day, and they would perform the national anthem with a rousing creativity, and the place would erupt, and North Carolina did Virginia just beaten last Saturday so the confusion faltered.

Then North Carolina led 49-45 with 8:30 left but couldn’t extend it at home and the esteemed visitors outplayed the home side 6-0 in the last 1:50 to win 62-57 and how-to everything in the world? How on earth could a team of four starters and 13 players left over from a national finalist prove so rock hard in the clutch last March that it was so chronically in the clutch so confusing?

His fans poured out without drastic dejection (at least in one corner), perhaps still inhaling the fumes of last March’s fine magic carpet when the Tar Heels gave them the eternal pleasure of ruining both the home final and the legendary Duke- Coach Mike Krzyzewski – even the last game in the Final Four.

The sophomore coach, former tar-heel guard and thorough tar-heel Hubert Davis walked into the interview room and delivered the kind of defiance you see in many expectant cities to many a chunky 19-12 — just not the defiance that A runaway No. 1 preseason is expected When asked about the split between practice and games, he replied, “I wouldn’t call it a ‘split'” and “That would be your definition or choice of words.” Responding to questions too telling that North Carolina would have to win the ACC tournament to be selected for March Madness, he declared himself “not a storyteller”. His frustration almost leaked through.

He said, “I have a good feeling about our team,” and “I told them in the dressing room that although I was very sad, I wasn’t at all confident about what kind of team this team could become.” and : “The confidence I have in these guys and this team hasn’t wavered a bit.”

From the mezzanine, Greg Cauley of the Class of 1976 watched his Kinston home with a keen eye on the basketball skills he certainly deserved given his 565 games at the Tar Heels home games that began February 24, 1983, sitting 115 Miles from the Dean Dome and that he’s spent many nights listening to postgames on the car radio, then music when those shows end while he’s “watching for deer.”

He’s seen a few winters, but then: “I’m not sure what I’m seeing now.”

This makes him the ideal guide for a confusion tour, even on the phone: “If someone has an answer, I’d almost pay to hear it. . . . I just don’t see the basketball ballet that I’m used to and I’ve always seen it that way. . . . It’s just very strange.” . . . People ask me, ‘What on earth do you think is going on?’ . . . [People around town are] scratching your head and wondering, ‘What on earth did I just see here?’ Everyone looks at everyone else and thinks, ‘Well, what’s going on?’ The truth will probably never be known. . . . ‘Stunning’ keeps coming to mind and I keep wanting to think of another word.”

From his point of view, he’s missing the “passes, assists, cuts and stuff” for a team ranked 261st in assists per game. He watches the dribble around the arch as the shot clock starts to screech. He’s amazed at “how we could be such a bad jump-shooting team as we are this year” — 317th of 352 from three-point range. He wonders how baseball teams get into trouble together. He marvels at the unknowable.

He’s a voice of wisdom, but with a different perspective from a voice of wisdom like ESPN’s Jay Bilas, who said in a text message, “Both teams are struggling relatively and neither team is living up to our expectations, but neither program is going anywhere. It’s just one of those years.”

It’s one of those years for a confusing tour to finish, and by the way, Kentucky won in Arkansas, sure, even when the great Tshiebwe was fouled. Transfer Antonio Reeves scored a whopping 37 points. Calipari had it all tweaked at the touch of a button and with no point guard, and remember, marriages can wane, but they can also thrive. But wait, six days after that, Kentucky went and lost again to Vanderbilt — remember, marriages can wane and wax and wane — in the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament, the same civic conference tournament impasse that befell, yes, North Carolina.

What a cornucopia of confusion.

“If you figure it out,” Cauley concluded, “let me know.” Kentucky, North Carolina is the epitome of a bewildering college basketball season

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