JAMIE H. VAUGHT: Good, Bad & Ugly of Holiday Leftovers at Kentucky
This is an updated version of a previous column with extra tidbits.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of some holiday leftovers.
--Good: At first, it sure was a little odd to see UK freshman Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (pictured) sporting a new look after getting a haircut. In fact, I think he looks awesome and professional. Just my opinion.
Also, in coming off the bench, the rookie from Hamilton, Ontario, was awesome in two consecutive games, hitting game-highs 24 points and 21 points against Louisville on Dec. 29 and Georgia on New Year’s Eve, respectively. He perhaps is becoming the most important player at Kentucky.
“Shai was ridiculous,” said Kentucky coach John Calipari of the 6-6 guard.
And going into this week’s road matchup with LSU, Gilgeous-Alexander leads the Wildcats in the passing department with 54 assists along with a 11.6-point average, third-best on the team.
UK freshman standout Hamidou Diallo said Gilgeous-Alexander has been “competing and coming out there with a different mindset. He’s been the best player on the floor the last two games. He’s really been helping us and that’s the nature of our team. We have seven or eight guys that can come on the floor and be the best player on any given night.”
Right now, Gilgeous-Alexander is becoming a super sub.
--Good: Kentucky’s 29-point victory margin over rival Louisville at Rupp Arena last weekend was a huge surprise. No one really expected a remarkable performance against the Cardinals by the youthful Wildcats especially after a recent setback to UCLA in New Orleans. The 90-61 win was Kentucky’s largest margin of victory against U of L since the 1999 game (76-46) won by Tubby Smith’s club against Denny Crum’s Cardinals at Rupp Arena.
--Bad: UK women’s basketball team is struggling to find a winning formula in recent weeks. Coach Matthew Mitchell’s club has a six-game losing streak after dropping to highly-ranked and unbeaten Tennessee 63-49 in a Sunday afternoon matchup at Rupp Arena. The Wildcats are now 8-7 entering Thursday night’s road contest with Texas A&M. That 7:00 p.m. game will be broadcast on SEC Network.
“I think we clearly have a confidence issue right now,” said Mitchell, who saw his cold-shooting Wildcats hit only 30.3 percent of their shots against the Vols. “I think that there is some doubt in our minds and we’ve got to work hard to battle through that. I mean, the only way you get confidence is through achievement.”
--Good: Bell County High School product and UK junior Maci Morris, who leads the Wildcats with a 16.1-point average, received a cut above her eye during Sunday’s date with rival Volunteers and required some stitches. But the 6-0 guard toughened it out and returned to action, finishing with a game-high 18 points along with three steals. Morris also gunned in 3 three-pointers against UT, giving her a career total of 139 which ranks No. 7 in program history.
Morris was asked if she thought she was coming back after getting stitches. “I was coming back. There was no question about that,” she said.
Morris, who has scored in double digits in all but one game this season, now needs just 86 points to become the 33rd member of UK’s 1,000-point club.
--Ugly: The 20th annual Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl is perhaps the wildest football game that I have ever seen in person. The announced crowd of 48,675 saw very questionable calls made by the Pac-12 officiating crew led by referee Chris Coyte.
We saw UK sophomore running back Benny Snell Jr. -- SEC’s second-leading rusher -- get ejected from the bowl after a contact with Coyte in the second quarter. I’m sure you saw it on television and subsequent replays, and I’m not going to repeat it here. Ridiculous! Wow!
Even former Kentucky coach Rich Brooks, who once took the Wildcats to four bowl trips, including three Music City bowl appearances, tweeted. “If Snell didn’t use foul language, he should not have been ejected,” he said on Twitter. “He also needs to keep his cool and not push the hands of the ref away.”
One former longtime NFL official who was a head linesman also told me the Snell penalty was the worst call of the postseason, adding that he himself wouldn’t even have thrown the flag. He preferred not to have his name mentioned in this column.
After the game, Coyte said Snell didn’t say a bad word during the incident. The referee also attempted to explain or justify the penalty in his other but brief comments to a pool reporter for the bowl, Adam Sparks of Nashville’s The Tennessean, who asked five questions overall.
In the second quarter, we also saw UK QB Stephen Johnson tackled on a late hit fairly deep on the UK sidelines. But no flags. No personal foul penalty against Northwestern. Ridiculous! Wow!
We also witnessed freshman star linebacker Paddy Fisher of Northwestern -- a second-team All-Big Ten selection who was leading all FBS first-year players with 110 tackles and 62 solo tackles -- get thrown out for targeting. A very, very questionable call. Ridiculous! Wow!
It is really a downright shame that the game officials actually took the national spotlight away from the players and created a social media firestorm throughout the night and afterwards with their "ridiculous" calls. And the national media, including folks like Tim Tebow and Keith Olbermann, agreed, crying foul.
It sure was a wild first half with Northwestern, which just lost its junior QB Clayton Thorson with a knee injury, leading 17-7 at the intermission.
To make the dramatic second-half story short, the Snell-less Wildcats, a decided underdog, somehow managed to bounce back with a chance to win with 37 seconds remaining. A successful two-point conversion would’ve given Kentucky a 25-24 lead. But a Johnson-to-Tavin Richardson pass failed and the other Wildcats from Chicago won.
Personally, I didn’t agree with the two-point call by coach Mark Stoops. However, I understood the pros and cons of this particular episode especially when dealing without Snell’s valuable rushing yardage. Just call me a football conservative, I guess.
As a sportswriter, I’ve now have covered six bowl games involving Kentucky in person and this 2017 Music City Bowl oddly ranks as the most memorable one (among the six bowl trips) for the wrong reason. And it certainly ranks as one of the most bizarre postseason games of all-time.
--Bad: If we are going to apply the controversial “Benny Snell” rule in college football, then we need to be fair to every player and coach. With that in mind, how in the world did ex-Georgia coach and current Miami boss Mark Richt stay in the Capital One Orange Bowl and not getting ejected after forcefully grabbing the arm of an official during a very heated argument? Instead, the official just threw a flag for an unsportsmanlike conduct. As it turned out, No. 10 Miami dropped to No. 6 Wisconsin 34-24.
Needless to say, there was really no comparison between Snell and Richt in their actions or dealings with the official. Ridiculous! Wow!
--Good: Senior Stephen Johnson finished No. 9 in school history with 4,342 passing yards despite playing only two years at Kentucky.
--Bad: Johnson, a fighter with a big heart, won’t be back next season and he will be missed by the Big Blue Nation. The Cats also will lose many other seniors, including placekicker Austin MacGinnis, linebacker Courtney Love and wide receiver Garrett Johnson.
--Good: Benny Snell Jr. now has 2,424 rushing yards in his UK career, which is good for No. 8 in school history. The running back will return as a junior next season.
--Good: Wishing you a Happy New Year!
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle.com magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.
UK Athletics Photo by Quinn Foster