Kentucky and North Carolina epitomize a basketball season of confusion


Kentucky Coach John Calipari and North Carolina Coach Hubert Davis have had confounding seasons. (Artur Galocha/The Washington Post; AP and Getty Images)


LEXINGTON, Ky., and CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Say you took a “Confusion Tour” to mark a confusing regular season by visiting the two most confusing empires of the rudderless winter of men’s college basketball 2022-23. Peril might lurk. What if Kentucky and North Carolina up and solved their confusion smack on the verge of March, leaving a “Confusion Tour” bereft of confusion?

That would be inhospitable.

In a year so muddled maybe the tournament should have seeded all 68 teams between Nos. 7 and 10, Kentucky and North Carolina rode dumbfounding paths to the No. 6 seed in the East Region (Kentucky), and tourney exclusion (North Carolina).

So a “Confusion Tour” might have seemed doomed when Kentucky went and annihilated Auburn, 86-54, on Feb. 25 inside Rupp Arena. It reached one of the weirdest 20-9 records its wise followers ever saw. The final horn coaxed a cheer and some appreciative applause in the lounge in the adjacent Hyatt. The Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouse, with its semicircle bar and piano and singers, brimmed with the dazzling energy it has ladled upon downtown, even if Dillon Ruby of the restaurant said that energy doesn’t change after losses because, “If they lose, you’re going there to forget about it, and we can kind of capture your attention really quickly.”

The menu still carried the “Calipari Roll” honoring longtime Kentucky coach John Calipari — spicy tuna, hamachi, cucumber, panko asparagus, sriracha pickled carrots, shaved Serrano, yuzu honey glaze, $24 — and some people probably even ordered it.

Nobody had jotted (or printed) any derision beside it.

“ ‘Cal has pushed the right buttons! He’s made the tweak!’ ” went the fan reaction, as recalled Ryan Lemond, a 27-year Lexington mainstay and host on Kentucky Sports Radio and various other shows.

Hell, the confusion had left this place. After a season that returned the 2021-22 national player of the year, Oscar Tshiebwe, plus the usual other budding stars yet featured baffling losses and then baffling wins, confusion had subsided.

What inept confusion tourism.

So they had their senior night March 1, and they honored six seniors, including Tshiebwe, who brought from the Democratic Republic of Congo a heart so luminous he sometimes seems to glow. Yeah, he went and hugged every single person in the senior night line — parents, siblings, would have gotten to distant cousins if needed. Lexington-based opera baritone Michael Preacely sang “My Old Kentucky Home” with pipes straight from the heavens. Then five minutes in, Vanderbilt crushingly lost its 7-foot centerpiece, Liam Robbins, to a season-ending leg injury. Seventeen minutes in, Kentucky led 28-23. It was not the most artistic basketball, but it did lack confusion. “You came all the way here for this?” someone nearby may or may not have said.

So get this: Nearly five minutes after halftime, Vanderbilt led 46-35.

Whatever the popular diagnoses of such things — youth, trap game after Auburn, transfer portal, NIL, the one-and-done motif that doesn’t completely define Kentucky this year, Calipari, Kentucky’s loss of freshman point guard Cason Wallace just after halftime — confusion had revved up still more. Kentucky pipped Vanderbilt to lead 66-64 but lost, 68-66, on baskets from Jordan Wright at 42 and three seconds, the former on a shockingly unimpeded baseline drive, and the night plunged into gobs of rain outdoors and raining what-the-hell indoors.

Calipari, his national title (2012) and four Final Fours (2011, 2012, 2014, 2015) at Kentucky deeper in the rearview, came in and started reminding reporters to laud Vanderbilt and started talking about Kentucky not giving up and said “fine” thrice while saying: “I mean, we’re fine. I mean, this team has done things and played ways, and we’re shorthanded and now we’re really shorthanded, and still, I mean, we’re going to be fine. We’re fine. I said it before; we can still write our own story. We’re on that path. I said it before when everybody was losing their minds. We’ll write our own story.”

Then he went out to the court to the coach’s traditional radio show with fans waiting in the stands, per tradition, and the fans applauded, and he thanked them, but then, per non-tradition until lately, he left at the first commercial break. “As you can tell, I am beaten down,” he said to the crowd. “I am tired. This has been a tough run. So I’ve got [assistant] Orlando Antigua to finish the show.”

Much of the crowd up and left, some carrying the basketballs they hoped to have signed.

Others, elsewhere, called the station, that eternal sound of American life. “The inconsistency of this team is just mind-boggling,” a baffled caller named Pete told Lemond and producer Billy Rutledge on Kentucky Sports Radio. “They could be playing anybody this time of year, and you could have no idea whether they could win or lose.”

Asked about that show by phone days later, Lemond said: “Fans went from angry, when they lost to South Carolina [on Jan. 10], to, like, bewildered, to the final one against Vanderbilt, they were just numb, almost. What is that [thing]. What are the phases of death?”

Stats and thoughts began swirling through the night and into the morning shows: Kentucky went 52-3 in senior days or nights before 2020, 1-3 since. How did Kentucky lose at home to teams standing sixth (Vanderbilt), ninth (Arkansas) and 12th (South Carolina) in the SEC? Why is Calipari seemingly the only coach in the United States who values long two-point shots? Why can’t a coach making somewhere close to $10 million finish his postgame radio show? “He’s always understood what this job meant,” influential Kentucky radio personality Matt Jones said the next morning, calling the exit “so disappointing.”

It could get a confusion tourist thinking about coach-town marriages, how they can wane over time, the sound of a perpetual voice gone stale. The Confusion Tour had yielded confusion, somewhat like a successful whale watching, only less majestic. Kentucky would head for Arkansas on March 4, clearly hopeless.

That same day, North Carolina would welcome Duke — okay, not exactly welcome per se — and Dean E. Smith Center would brim with such frenzy it would seem the Tar Heels stood maybe 27-3 rather than their dusty, inexplicable 19-11. The public address announcer would introduce the Chapel Hill-formed musical group Mipso with a reminder all four musicians had stormed Franklin Street on occasion in their days, and they would perform the national anthem with a stirring creativity, and the place would erupt, and North Carolina did just beat Virginia the previous Saturday, so confusion teetered.

Then North Carolina led 49-45 with 8:30 left but couldn’t widen it at home, and the esteemed visitors outscored and out-toughed the home team 6-0 over the last 1:50 to win, 62-57, and how in the world? How in the world could a team with four starters and 13 players left from a national finalist so rock-gutted in the clutch last March prove so confusing in the clutch so chronically?

Its fans filed out without any drastic glumness (in one corner, anyway), maybe even still inhaling fumes from the fine magic carpet of last March, when the Tar Heels afforded them the eternal pleasure of wrecking both the home finale and the final game of legendary Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski — the latter game in the Final Four, even.

Second-year coach, former Tar Heel guard and thorough Tar Heel Hubert Davis came into the interview room and practiced the defiance seen in many an expectant town facing many a clunky 19-12 — just not the defiance anticipated around a runaway preseason No. 1. To a question about the disconnect between practice and games, he would say, “I wouldn’t call it a ‘disconnect,’ ” and, “That would be your definition or decision on words.” To questions about the narrative that North Carolina would have to win the ACC tournament to gain selection for March Madness, he proclaimed himself “not a narrative guy.” His frustration almost oozed.

He said, “I feel good about our team,” and, “I told them in the locker room that even though I was very sad I wasn’t down at all in my confidence in what kind of team this team can become,” and, “The confidence that I have in these guys and this team hasn’t wavered a bit.”

From the mezzanine, Greg Cauley of the Class of 1976 watched with a keen view of the basketball arts he certainly has earned, considering his 565-game streak of attending Tar Heels home games that began Feb. 24, 1983, that his home in Kinston sits 115 miles away from the Dean Dome and that he has spent many a night listening to postgames on the car radio, then to music when those shows end, all while “looking out for deer.”

He has seen some winters, but then, “I’m not sure what I’m seeing now.”

It makes him an ideal guide for a Confusion Tour, even by phone: “If anybody’s got an answer, I’d almost pay to hear it. . . . I’m just not seeing the basketball ballet that I’m accustomed to seeing, and I’ve always kind of thought of it like that. . . . It’s just really strange.” . . . People ask me, ‘What in the world do you think is going on?’ . . . [People around town are] scratching their heads and wondering, ‘What in the world did I just see here?’ Everyone’s looking at everyone else thinking, ‘Well, what’s happening?’ The truth will never be known, I guess. . . . ‘ Mind-boggling’ just keeps coming to mind, and I keep wanting to come up with another word.”

From his view he misses the “passing, assists, cutting and stuff,” for a team ranked 261st in assists per game. He watches the dribbling around the arc while the shot clock starts to shriek. He’s baffled about “how we could be as bad a jump-shooting team as we are this year” — 317th out of 352 from three-point range. He wonders about how baseball teams go into slumps together. He wonders about the unknowable.

He’s a wise voice but with a different angle from a wise voice such as Jay Bilas of ESPN, who said in a text message: “Both teams have struggled on a relative basis, and neither team is what we expected, but neither program is going anywhere. It’s just one of those years.”

It’s one of those years for a confusing tour, right up to the end, and so, by the way, this: Kentucky won at Arkansas, sure, even as the great Tshiebwe fouled out. Transfer Antonio Reeves scored a mighty 37 points. Calipari had it all button-pushed and tweaked without a point guard, and remember, marriages can wane but then also wax. But wait, six days after that Kentucky went and lost again to Vanderbilt — remember, marriages can wane and wax and wane — in the SEC tournament quarterfinals, the same bourgeois conference-tournament dead end that befell, yeah, North Carolina.

What a cornucopia of confusion.

“If you figure it out,” Cauley closed, “let me know.”


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