In the 1960s and 1970s, Tennessee Coach Ray Mears often agitated Kentucky fans. His pre-game circus antics included players on unicycles twirling orange and white basketballs. He seemed to mock our religious fervor for the game, and at least in the late 1960s, the Kentucky students might welcome Tennessee's appearance on the Memorial Coliseum floor with a barrage of oranges.
How dare Coach Mears to bring his circus act to the serious business of Kentucky basketball, especially on such sacred ground as the Memorial Coliseum floor? FN1 How could he be so irreverent?
However, Kentucky fans, especially this writer, could have easily dismissed Coach Mears' pre-game antics but for his doubly infuriating game antics. He preferred to shorten a basketball game by controlling the pace. He used the slower pace to limit the number of scoring opportunities for our beloved wildcats. Kentucky fans of that era regarded scoring 100 or more points as the benchmark of success on the court. FN2 A game played in the 50s or 60s was anathema to success. To illustrate this philosophy, contrast how Kentucky fans did not seem concerned when Northwestern scored 116 points, FN3, because Kentucky scored 118 points. FN4 However, some fans complain about a 64-61 victory over Tennessee. FN5
Coach Mears' game strategy produced more than enough victories over Kentucky during his tenure to elevate the Tennessee program to a “most despised” level. In retrospect, Coach Mears clearly understood the game of basketball; in fact, he understood the game in ways that many basketball fans fail to grasp. The team that produces more points with its available possessions over the course of the game will win the game.
Coach Mears recognized that his team could not maintain sufficient offensive productivity and defensive intensity to match Kentucky in a game with 85 to 95 possessions. However, he convinced his players that they could compete with anyone, including Kentucky if they could control the pace of the game and limit the teams to 75 or fewer possessions in the game.
He taught his players to reduce the number of possessions and to maximize their use thereof. Coach Mears convinced his team that they could maintain the offensive production and defensive intensity over the course of such a shortened game. He convinced his players that they could win any game, even over clearly superior Kentucky teams.
He also understood that the lower number of offensive opportunities coupled with the need to play more minutes on defense than offense could frustrate Kentucky players and fans accustomed to swollen scoring averages, both individually and collectively. FN6 The Kentucky players frequently responded to these frustrations just as Coach Mears anticipated, by attempting quick, low percentage shots, by attempting high-risk passes, and by attempting unsound defensive tactics in an attempt to accelerate the game's pace and obtain another offensive opportunity. These risky attempts often rewarded a patient Tennessee team with uncontested high percentage scoring opportunities, more Kentucky turnovers, reduced Kentucky offensive efficiency, and defensive breakdowns by Kentucky players who preferred to play at the offensive end rather than defend the patient, methodical Tennessee offense.
1. Memorial Coliseum was the foundation of basketball lore. The house that Rupp built. The home of the longest home winning streak in the nation. A basketball venue that was perennially sold out when college basketball in most areas of the country was simply a winter pastime needed to bide the time between the end of the football bowls and spring football practice.
2. The Memorial Coliseum score boards only had two digits for score, and when the basketball moved to Rupp Arena, the new three digit score boards received great praise.
3. Or any era really. Kentucky basketball fans have never been more excited about their teams than during those seasons when the talent level was sufficient to dictate an up-tempo, high scoring performance.
4. In 1966-67, Kentucky played Northwestern at Memorial Coliseum in December. Kentucky won the game 118 to 116 and I can distinctly remember feeling good about a team that could score 118 points and win a basketball game. That Kentucky team went on to finish the season 13-13 and was Coach Adolph Rupp's only non-winning team in 42 seasons.
5. On February 19, 2002 , Tennessee visited Rupp Arena and dictated the tempo in losing to Kentucky 61-64. While Kentucky enjoyed victory over the Vols in the end, the fans left the arena dissatisfied with the Kentucky performance.
6. In the era of no shot clock, the burden of engaging the opponent fell to the defense whenever a team elected to slow the pace of the game with a passive offense designed to wait patiently for very high percentage shot opportunities. Since NCAA adopted the shot clock, the burden of prosecution has clearly shifted to the offense.
Copyright 2004 Richard Cheeks