Here in the latest golden age of Kentucky basketball, a trivia question.
In the past five heady years, who is the only team to beat the Wildcats in the postseason outside of the Final Four?
The answer, of course, is … Robert Morris? Robert Morris.
And maybe the Colonials should get some of the credit — or blame — for 38-0.
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If you don’t remember the game, they certainly do on the campus outside Pittsburgh. It was the night in March 2013 the mighty Wildcats came to town for the NIT. In just a couple of minutes, it was Robert Morris 10, Kentucky 0. It ended 59-57, and Lucky Jones, who scored 15 points, still can see the students rushing the court afterward.
“Not everybody gets an opportunity like that,” he said.
“It’s got to be the biggest win in the history of the program,” Coach Andy Toole said. “People still remind us, they ask us about it, when we see people in Pittsburgh, that’s what they remember. So it was a magical night for us.”
It is also a conspicuous scar in an otherwise shining five-year surge for Kentucky; Final Four in 2011, national championship in 2012, national runners-up in 2014, now back to the Final Four. And in the middle, a first-round NIT loss to Robert Morris, which is just down the road from where John Calipari went to high school.
But here’s the thing. The comeuppance of that evening may very well have played a part in where the Wildcats are two years later; unbeaten and closing on history.
“I think recruiting changed. I think Coach Cal changed,” said Willie Cauley-Stein, one of the few current Wildcats left over from that team. “I remember one of his remarks: We’ll never have a season like this again.
“They recruited guys who are going to fight. They recruited guys who have a will to win. You don’t have to teach them a will to win.”
And now they do win. Every night.
Well, Robert Morris?
“I don’t know if everybody is going to thank us for what they’ve done since, if we were the ones who kind of woke up the sleeping dragon,” Toole said.
Kentucky was defending national champion that year, but trying to do it with a basically new roster. The one-and-done system was in full flower. On top of that, freshman star Nerlens Noel went down with a knee injury late in the season, and the Wildcats never recovered, losing six of their last 10 and going 21-12. Hence, no NCAA tournament berth. “When Nerlens got hurt, it changed our team,” Calipari said the other day. “We would have been an NCAA team that year with Nerlens.”
The situation only grew worse. Because Rupp Arena was being used for the NCAA tournament early rounds, Kentucky had to play on the road. If being relegated to the NIT was not unbecoming enough, a trip to Robert Morris?
— Willie Cauley-Stein
The gym was nearly full hours before the game. Toole looked out on the court at 5:30 p.m., two hours prior to tip-off, and saw his players shooting around, already drenched with sweat from the excitement and atmosphere, and ordered them of the floor.
“I didn’t know if they would be able to sustain the intensity and energy that was going on for two hours until the game, and then the two hours of the game,” he said.
The crowd kept coming, standing rows deep around the court. “I wanted to get a drink of water later in the game, and there were four guys standing around the water cooler,” Toole said. “I had to ask them to get out of the way so I could get something to drink.”
When it was over — Mike McFadden hitting two game-winning free throws with 8.7 seconds left — there was no holding the crowd back.
“I think we had one staff member trying to stop the stampede. She was not overly successful at that,” Toole said. “Maybe 20 or 25 minutes after the game, we were still trying to get guys into the locker room because people didn’t believe what had happened, and they didn’t want to leave the building. They wanted to hold onto that as long as they could.”
The Colonials lost their next NIT game to Providence to finish 24-11, but they have that night forever. Plus, it pumped confidence into the program that might still echo. Robert Morris made the NCAA tournament this year, with Jones still among its leaders. “I think it gave our guys some belief,” Toole said “I think it was an important lesson for our program as well.”
Meanwhile, the Kentucky Wildcats trudged home from Robert Morris to plan a better future. Calipari talked that night of a team with no discipline, and vowed it would be addressed.
“It’s one of those things you deal with,” he said last week. “We didn’t blame the kids, we took responsibility. I did, personally. Still had two kids go in the first round. Can you imagine?”
— RMU Athletics (@RMUAthletics) March 20, 2013
Calipari related a conversation he had a couple of days after the game while on the West Coast.
“Who did you lose to in the NIT?” a man asked.
“Robert Morris,” Calipari answered.
“No, Robert Morris University.”
Tod Lanter was a Wildcat reserve then and now.
“We had to change the way we did things. We had to change the mindset for the guys coming in,” he said. “We had to put it behind us and at the same time we had to learn from it. It isn’t an easy thing to ask 18-year-olds to do.
“We had some bad things happen, with Nerlens going down, but we just had to regroup, and say, we won’t win just because we have Kentucky across our chest. We’re going to have to work for it. The coaching staff had to tell the people coming in, this wasn’t us, and to demand perfection. Quite literally at this point.”
Two years later, Kentucky is the prince of darkness in college basketball.
“We apologize to everybody else,” Toole said.
Might be a little late for that.