Thursday, March 25, 2010

Battle Of Ideas

It’s a basketball tenet as old as the game itself: Force the opponent to play your team’s style. That’s made for some interesting cultural clashes over the years.

The Rick Pitino-helmed Kentucky teams and the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay squads of the early to mid-1990s were known for their distinctive styles, which were at different poles of the tempo spectrum. Pitino’s teams forced the fast pace with quick three-pointers on offense and a frenetic full-court press on defense. Green Bay was known for its physical man-to-man defense and deliberate offensive sets that ate a good chunk out of the shot clock.

So tempo was to be the watchword when the teams met in an odd non-conference game at Rupp Arena on Dec. 6, 1995. It was the home opener for the Wildcats, who had the perfect storm of players for Pitino’s hellish attack. A remarkable nine players on that Kentucky team would eventually log time in the NBA. Green Bay was coached by Mike Heideman, but the Phoenix still bore the indelible imprint of former coach Dick Bennett, who had moved on to the University of Wisconsin after the previous season.

Given the talent disparity, it was incredible that Green Bay would grab control of the pace at the beginning of the game. The Phoenix’s defense suffocated the Wildcats on the first possession, forcing a skinny Antoine Walker to miss a jumper with the shot clock running low. Then on offense, Green Bay worked the ball around and freed sharpshooter Jeff Nordgaard off a screen for a wide open 20-footer and a 2-0 lead against one of the top teams in the nation.

This wasn’t the kind of game Pitino envisioned, and Tony Delk responded to the Phoenix’s shot across the bow by fast-forwarding down the court and launching a three-pointer.

That was all it took for the game to turn on a dime. After Delk’s shot went in, Kentucky was able to set up that back-breaking press. The result was two straight turnovers for the Phoenix and an 8-2 lead for the Wildcats.

A three-pointer and dunk by Nordgaard kept Green Bay close at 10-7, but that press soon overwhelmed the Phoenix. The turnovers kept coming and soon Kentucky was holding a 22-point lead. If Bennett was still coaching the Phoenix, his head might have spontaneously combusted.

Green Bay collected itself with a few minutes to spare in the second half, leading to a mini-run that made it 38-24 at halftime. The Wildcats had forced the possession-obsessed Phoenix into 15 turnovers in the first 20 minutes.

The Phoenix had to get back to comfortable ground. Green Bay was fortunate to have the ball to start the second half, and again worked the shot clock down before Matt Hill sank a jumper. Kentucky was forced into a turnover and couldn’t set up its press, and another Hill jumper got the Phoenix within 38-28.

But Delk turned the tide again for the Wildcats. Another three-pointer by “Tony Buckets” set up a run by Kentucky that built its lead back up to 18. It was a vicious cycle against the Wildcats: turnovers begat Kentucky points that begat the press that begat more points and around again.

This was a tough, veteran-laded Green Bay team that had been in two consecutive NCAA tournaments. Some key pieces were still around from the team that upset Jason Kidd and California in 1994, including Nordgaard, who looked like the best player on the floor. The power forward, who later had a cup of java with the Milwaukee Bucks, hit 7 of 8 shots in the second half, finished with a game-high 29 points, helped handle the ball against the press and banged down low against Walker and Walter McCarty.

Nordgaard helped get the pesky Phoenix back in the game at 70-60, but Anthony Epps hit a back-breaking three and Kentucky was able to win, 74-62. The Wildcats’ overwhelming talent allowed them to quicken the tempo and put together enough runs to stave off the Phoenix.

Kentucky would lose one time the rest of the season (to Mississippi State in the SEC championship game). The Wildcats then rolled to the NCAA title and laid claim to being one of the best teams in recent memory. Green Bay, secure that they could at least hang with elite teams, would win their next 23 games and reach the AP Top 25 for the first time in school history. However, high expectations for the Phoenix were deflated in the post-season, with losses to Detroit in the MCC tournament and Virginia Tech in the first round of the NCAA.

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