Sometimes, basketball games are decided in ways the eyes can't see. Sometimes, differences between the winning team and the losing team are imperceptible, made clear only through statistics -- cold, unbiased, objective numbers.
Other times, basketball is really simple.
Anyone who watched No. 1-seed Kentucky lose to No. 2-seed West Virginia in Syracuse, N.Y. probably doesn't need much in the way of numbers to figure just why the Wildcats lost. Kentucky lost because it couldn't make shots. That's it. It really is that simple.
Sure, there are other complaints the no-doubt devastated denizens of Big Blue Nation can lodge. Like Kansas before it, Kentucky probably should have pressed earlier in the second half. The Wildcats probably should have worked harder to get better looks, even when trailing; shooting so many 3-pointers played right into West Virginia's hands. John Calipari probably should have encouraged his team to push the pace more frequently, rather than getting stuck in the sort of grinding half-court style the Mountaineers prefer.
But all of that is moot if Kentucky makes a few more shots. This is the story of Kentucky's year. The Wildcats were as talented as any group of freshmen since the Fab Five. They were excellent or above-average in every phase of the game -- except for two areas: 3-point and free throw shooting. When the Cats lost to Tennessee and South Carolina, it was because they were lulled by their opponents' defense into settling for long jump shots. And it happened again tonight.
We may not need numbers, but just to hammer it home: Kentucky was 0-for-20 to start the game from outside the arc. The Wildcats finished 4-of-32. When Kentucky did eschew the long shot, instead choosing to drive and draw the foul, it was 16-of-29 from the charity stripe, leaving 13 crucial points on the board. The team's 34.3 percent overall shooting was its worst of the season. The 55.2 percent mark from the free throw line was the third-worst.
Against many teams, shooting that poorly wouldn't be a problem. Kentucky is usually so much better than its opponents that its athleticism and talent and strength and all of those other astounding physical qualities that were so evident in UK's blowout win over Cornell Thursday night are enough. But not against West Virginia. The Mountaineers were the one team left in the tournament -- with the possible exception of Baylor -- with enough athleticism to hold their own under the glass with Kentucky. So Kentucky had to make shots. They didn't. Simple.
The opposite was true of West Virginia. These Mountaineers have never been a good shooting team. Instead, Bob Huggins' squad has relied on its uncanny ability to grab all those misses and get easy putbacks underneath. Kentucky limited that part of West Virginia's game, but it didn't matter: The Mountaineers did shoot well. At one point in the first half, WVU hadn't made a single free throw or two-point field goal, but they had made eight 3-pointers. For the first 20 minutes, the ugly-shooting Mountaineers had turned into a very big, athletic version of Cornell. By the time they cooled down, they were getting interior shots from curl screens and back cuts, and their lead was -- despite a few scares from Kentucky's late-arriving press -- safe.
West Virginia made shots. Kentucky didn't. It's so simple that I don't even need to keep repeating how simple it is.
The Mountaineers' win will send them -- and Huggins, who could probably get elected governor of West Virginia at this point -- to their first Final Four appearance since 1959. It also sets up a matchup with the winner of Duke-Baylor, two very different teams that will present two very different challenges. For now, though, West Virginia can enjoy the moment. It took a lot of likely Kentucky misses and a lot of unlikely WVU makes, but however simple it may be, I have a feeling Huggins and company won't much mind.
As for Kentucky: The loss will be especially tough to take for the Big Blue fans, many of whom no doubt considered this UK's best chance to win a national title in the immediate future. John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, and Patrick Patterson will almost certainly be headed to the NBA lottery. Eric Bledsoe, a likely first-round pick, could join them. Kentucky will start from scratch again next season. (Though that's a very talented scratch; Calipari will likely sign another top-10 recruiting class.) UK fans have infamously high expectations. This is unquestionably a disappointment.
At the same time, though, here's to hoping Kentucky fans remember the season they just saw, which, oh yeah, took place just a few months after the program appeared in -- gasp! -- the NIT. When programs fire coaches, they plan for a few years of down seasons and rebuilding efforts. Turnarounds simply don't happen this quickly. Under John Calipari, it did -- and it produced the most entertaining season in the past decade of Kentucky basketball.
It also means that we, the college basketball viewing public, have to wave farewell to the two best freshmen we've seen since Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant. Cousins is a beast of a player, an insanely effective offensive rebounder, and a more polished scorer than he usually gets credit for. And ... John Wall. Well, John Wall. What else can you say? The hype of Wall's arrival was insanely outsized, and yet Wall lived up to -- even exceeded -- every expectation thrust upon him. Both players are going to be very, very rich in a few months, and both players will deserve it. They're that talented. (To those who have problems, many of them legitimate, with the one-and-done rule, I simply say: We got to watch John Wall for a year! It's completely selfish, and I don't care! It was awesome!)
Really, though, tonight is West Virginia's night. Few fan bases are as fervent in their love for the home team. One such group is extremely disappointed tonight. The other is extremely happy. Enjoy it, Mountaineers fans. It's been a long time coming.