Forget revenge: Kentucky-Indiana rematch much more important than that
ATLANTA – Don’t call it a revenge game.
Sure, the NCAA tournament South Region semifinal Friday between Kentucky (34-2) and Indiana (27-8) gives the top-seeded Wildcats a chance to avenge their only regular-season loss. And it also could allow them to avoid getting angry every time a ubiquitous commercial pops on their TV screens.
But it frankly means a whole lot more than that.
“Whoever wins this one still has a season,” Kentucky forward Terrence Jones said. “I think it’s a little bit more than a revenge game for both teams.”
That may be doubly true for Kentucky.
Indiana already has overachieved. The Hoosiers, who didn’t get a single vote in either of the two preseason polls, earned a No. 4 seed in their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2008. They advanced to the Sweet 16 even after senior point guard Verdell Jones III tore his right anterior cruciate ligament in the Big Ten tournament. They’re playing with house money.
Top-seeded Kentucky has national player of the year Anthony Davis heading a lineup that features potential lottery picks at every position. Fair or not, anything short of a national title will be considered a disappointment.
“I think it’s fair,” Kentucky forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist said. “This is a young team but, still, I think it’s fair.”
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Kentucky coach John Calipari has tried to guard his team against using revenge as a motive. Earlier in the week, Calipari said he didn’t like to teach anger “because the physiology of that is really close to fear.”
But it’s easy to see how that anger could arise when they see the closing seconds of that loss to Indiana just about every time they’re watching basketball on TV.
A commercial for ESPN’s WatchESPN broadband service shows the final seconds of that Dec. 10 game, including Christian Watford’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer that gave the Hoosiers a 73-72 victory.
Watford estimated that he has seen highlights of that shot “a million times.” Kidd-Gilchrist probably feels he’s endured just as many viewings of the commercial, or at least the start of it. He usually doesn’t get around to the end. “I turn it off,” Kidd-Gilchrist said.
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Perhaps no Kentucky player has more incentive than freshman guard Marquis Teague, who graduated from Indianapolis Pike and received plenty of grief when he chose to play for Kentucky.
“On Twitter and Facebook, fans were telling me I should have gone there [to IU], that I’m a traitor, stuff like that,” Teague said.
The last thing he wants is to return home a two-time loser to Indiana.
Of course, the Kentucky team that lost to Indiana in December bears little resemblance to the group that will show up at the Georgia Dome on Friday night. The players are the same, but this freshman-laden team has grown up quite a bit.
Kentucky shot just 58.8 percent (10-of-17) from the free-throw line against Indiana, far below its SEC-leading season percentage of .719. Foul trouble limited Davis to 24 minutes, about eight below his season average and 12 below his postseason average. Jones finished with four points and a season-high six turnovers.
The Wildcats also have significantly improved their perimeter defense since then. Indiana shot 9-of-15 from 3-point range against Kentucky a week after the Wildcats had allowed North Carolina to go 11-of-18 from beyond the arc. Since that game, Kentucky opponents have made just 30.9 percent of their 3-point attempts.
Those factors help explain why the team that won the regular-season meeting between these teams heads into the rematch as a nine-point underdog.
“Nobody expects us to come out here and win,” Watford said. “Once the ball’s tipped up, we’ll have something to do with that. It’s been like that all year. It’s nothing out of the ordinary at this point.”
Kentucky has come such a long way since the loss to Indiana that it’s easy to overlook that the Hoosiers also have improved. Indiana coach Tom Crean noted that his team has grown mentally and physically tougher. Kentucky may feature three freshman starters in Davis, Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague, but Indiana’s lineup includes one freshman (Cody Zeller) and two sophomores (Victor Oladipo and Will Sheehey) who also have grown up quite a bit.
Most important, Indiana also legitimately believes it can beat Kentucky. After all, the Hoosiers already have done it.
“Yeah, they’re the No. 1 team in the country,” Oladipo said. “Yeah, they have all this publicity. But there’s no reason to fear them. If you fear them, you’ve lost the game before you even play. You have to believe. You have to believe you can win. I think we do believe we can win. We’re just going to go out there and play – and play at a high level.”
They’ll have to play at a higher level than they did Dec. 10. As much as the Hoosiers have enjoyed watching Watford’s buzzer beater, they don’t get nearly as satisfied viewing other portions of that game. They have spent the week studying film of that contest to analyze how they let a 10-point lead slip away in the last nine minutes.
They noticed that they shot the ball too quickly down the stretch. They didn’t guard the dribble well enough. They have vowed to correct those mistakes.
“We kind of did some crazy things to kind of let them back in the game,” Watford said. “We felt it shouldn’t have come down to that shot.”
Indiana probably wouldn’t mind if the rematch also came down to a last-second shot. Kentucky is eager to produce a different finish.
“We see the commercial, and it makes us a little upset,” Teague said. “Nobody wants to see themselves lose over and over, especially that way.
“We’re just ready to get on the court and make a new commercial, I guess.”
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