The “opt out” has become a recurrent theme during college sports these last few months.
In Arkansas, stars such as Rakeem Boyd (Razorbacks football) and Markquis Nowell (UALR basketball) have elected to stop playing deep into their seasons while citing health and safety concerns stemming from COVID-19. Entire athletic programs, from Vanderbilt women’s basketball to Howard men’s basketball, have done the same.
Apparently, choosing to opt out now extends to the practice of sportsmanship in post-game interviews, too.
At least that’s what it sounded like when Brandon Boston, one of Kentucky’s leading scorers and its most talented player, took the podium after an 81-80 loss to a red-hot Arkansas team that has risen to No. 3 in the SEC behind only Alabama and Missouri.
Boston, who had a great shooting game and helped Kentucky to its best performance from behind the perimeter since 2012, was in no mood for moral victories.
He was stewing after a late-game call with Kentucky up by 1 that sent Arkansas guard Jalen Tate to the line for two-game winning free throws. In the play, Tate gathered a rebound and was clearly raked across the face and fouled by Olivier Sarr. The refs called the foul on Jacob Toppin, who also fouled Tate.
— Turbo Buffalo (@THETurboBuffalo) February 10, 2021
For the dozens of Arkansas fans in my mentions posting this same screenshot, the refs didn’t call the foul on Olivier Sarr (which obviously would have been a fine call).
— Jack Pilgrim (@JackPilgrimKSR) February 10, 2021
But Brandon didn’t see it this way. Apparently, he felt Tate flopped.
“I honestly think it wasn’t a foul,” Boston said. “I think the refs gave them that game, that’s all I can say.”
Maybe Boston had already read a bunch of messages from friends and family who had watched the game on ESPN and had heard the broadcasters (including former Arkansas coach Jimmy Dykes) openly doubt whether there had been a foul on Tate. “Not much there,” the announcers intoned.
Maybe Boston was still peeved about the fact that Kentucky drew up the last play for him. Instead, the Wildcats’ inbounds pass went to the seven-footer Sarr, who promptly got his candy snatched by Arkansas’ Devo Davis at mid-court.
Watching Kentucky’s offense is certainly 40 minutes of hell
— Ian Teasley (@ianteasley) February 10, 2021
Or maybe Boston was smarting over the recent news that an SEC basketball coach thought his once-lofty NBA potential was tanking: “If Brandon Boston Jr. goes pro he’ll never be a great player,” the coach said. “He’s too soft, he doesn’t shoot it great, he’s not physical. He needs to come back another year.”
It’s fine if Boston and other Kentucky basketball players are ticked off at the referees. All players, on all teams, know the feeling.
What’s not acceptable is throwing the entire loss at the hands of the referees when it’s not warranted and refusing to give his opponents even a shred of credit in a nearly six-minute interview: Not once did he tip his hat to the Razorbacks, who should shoulder plenty of responsibility for the loss too.
It matters that the Razorbacks gave up only six turnovers to UK’s 11 turnovers. That’s the fewest the Hogs have ever had at Rupp Arena, according to HogStats.com, and a huge reason Arkansas won despite losing the rebounding battle 33 to 42 and hitting 9 of 24 on threes while UK hit 14 of 26.
“The game plan was to give up the three,” Musselman said. “Any criticism about them making 14 three-balls can be put squarely on my shoulders and not the players’ shoulders whatsoever. That was the game plan. They executed it. We were willing to live with the three, based on the numbers both in conference play and non-conference play.”
As for John Calipari, like most coaches he focused on his own team in the presser, but at least he didn’t blame the loss on the referees:
“There were things that happened,” the Kentucky basketball coach said. “I’ve got to go back and look at the last call, I mean, was it a jump ball? Was there body contact? Because this game was physical. To give up two free throws to win the game, I don’t know. We’ll see it when I watch the tape.”
Look, I get it.
Much of what these pressers boil down to is what reporters ask. If they never ask about the opponent, it’s on the losing coaches and players to bring it up.
In football, it’s more common for opposing coaches to praise the other team after a game. In basketball, not as much.
Most all great coaches get fiery, too. Like Calipari, Musselman has stormed off the court in a huff a time or two. Former UALR coach Chris Beard did the same on Tuesday night, but at least he walked up to West Virginia’s Bob Huggins to proffer a fist dap of sportsmanship before leaving the premises.
Respecting your opponent, regardless of winning or less, is the kind of sportsmanship college basketball needs.
Other Arkansas student-athletes definitely know what it’s like to be on the losing side of a call. Last fall, in football, referees gifted a football game to Auburn that should have gone to Arkansas. Afterward, however, you didn’t hear Razorback football players and Sam Pittman blaming the game on the referees.
“I don’t think it does any good to talk about things that you can’t change,” Sam Pittman said later. “After the game’s over, whatever the decision was made during the game —, obviously there was a mistake made but — we can’t change it.”
“We talked about things we can change. And one of them was where he could make the first down and run the clock out or when we popped the ball, we can stop them. Those are the things that we we can control. If you can’t control something, there’s really no reason to talk about it, cause the results not going to change. So we didn’t want to waste time.”
Some would defend Brandon Boston by pointing out he’s only 19 years old.
True. But that’s more than a decade older than many athletes learn basic tenets of sportsmanship like:
1) Focus on what you could have done better instead of wasting time on what the referees called
2) Give your opponent their due
This gaffe aside, Boston seems like a nice enough person. In fact, I hope he learns and grows from this loss. I want him, along with the rest of the Wildcats, to keep up their hot shooting and improved offense. Arkansas needs Kentucky to start winning games so that the Wildcats will rise in the NET rankings and become a Quad 1 win for the Hogs down the line. Those are the kinds of wins that lead to higher seeding in March Madness.
The more quickly Boston adopts the mindset of Sam Pittman, the more likely that is to happen.
See the controversial foul call at 9:17 below:
Here’s what Eric Musselman had to say about the talented freshman guard out of Jacksonville, Ark:
“Tonight, I told him to just take it to the cup. He’s not really established as a go-to player for us, but now, two games I’ve told him in transition to get to the basket because I think he can beat his own man. I think it allows us rebounding angles because he’s so quick and when he dribble-drives, he always brings an extra defender because he gets by his own man.”
On Davis sealing the win with a steal: “He’s got great anticipation. You know, I put him in before for defensive purposes and we were in switching in our pick and rolls and Jaylin Williams’ mans slipped it so Devo stayed on his own. Jaylin wasn’t able to recover back quick enough to Oliver Sarr. That was Oliver Sarr’s last 3.”
“So, I took Devo out and tried to explain, ‘Hey even on a slip or a ghost screen we still probably got to probably switch that thing because we didn’t want to give up a 3.’ He regathered and went back in and thought he did a great job both offensively and defensively the last few seconds.”
Davis said of Musselman: “”He’s just giving me freedom. That’s how I like to play. He’s given me a lot of freedom, and as the year progresses and as he gives me more and more leeway, I’m going to continue to take advantage, but make the right plays as well.”
Tate, a transfer from Northern Kentucky and Ohio native, spoke about what it meant to him going back to familiar part of the nation:
“I actually had 25 tickets on my list this week, it meant the world man. Everybody that came tonight man I let them know like, physically when I got to see them after the game and that’s why I was taking so long to talk to you guys, but it was just like they know how much it means to me. You know being 12 hours from home and the people that got to make this drive, my old school is only an hour away from here, home is actually three hours. Everybody’s been looking forward to this since I committed to Arkansas, everyone’s been trying to get tickets to this game and it’s just a blessing I was allowed to get everybody tickets that wanted to come.”
On being the hero who made big shots to defeat Kentucky …
“Man, I’m no hero dog. I’m just a guy that comes to work every day. As for living in the shadows man, I went to Northern Kentucky right down the road. I had to sit out and watch them freshman year, broken hand, had to sit out and watch Bam Adebayo, De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk you know and watch my guys try to take on those guys in the NCAA Tournament.”
“So just having the opportunity to actually be out there and play, help my teammates and just be able to see things on the court man, be able to implement them you know, just help my team and be able to do anything to win the game.”
John Calipari and Kentucky basketball
Calipari making lemonade out lemons:
“Today they were a team trying to create shots and execution for each other so that we can win. You know, again, we had some breakdowns defensively. We were — there were some guys that, you know, the game plan was we broke it off a couple times and they made us pay with layups. And so you know, but the reality of it is guys who are in there fighting, battling, you know, did some good stuff….”
“And what I’m continuing to say, we’re looking for singles and bunts. I don’t need home runs. We’re not capable of hitting home runs. So let’s not. Let’s just do all the bunts and great screens and execution and everybody do their thing together. Like I said after the game, hard for me to be mad. I wanted to win the game. I’ll look at the stuff down the stretch to see how I feel.”
“But the reality of it is the team fought and they executed and they threw daggers today. Finally, guys threw daggers.”