If you’re a regular reader of this site, you know that Kentucky basketball program will always have a very special place in my heart.
For those of you who aren’t quite sure what I’m talking about, let me give you a quick recap.
My whole wild ride with Kentucky fans started two December’s ago, when UConn and Kentucky played a highly memorable game at Madison Square Garden, in what turned out to be an otherwise forgettable UConn season. I was there, and while I’d heard stories of “Big Blue Nation,” in the past, I wasn’t totally prepared for what I saw that night, as the Garden became “Rupp Arena North.” UConn may have lost, but as a sports fan, I had nothing but instantaneous respect for a fan base that could fill up a neutral court arena, on a weekday night, for a non-conference game. That level of fandom was only verified with the correspondence I got after writing the article on that game. E-mails poured in, everyone thanking me for sharing the experience with them.
I followed up that article with this one, after Kentucky lost in last year’s Elite Eight to West Virginia. With UConn having such a treacherous season, I had sort of embraced Kentucky as the de-facto team to follow, and seeing them get knocked out of the NCAA Tournament made me feel terrible for everyone involved with the program. I felt bad for the players and Coach Calipari, but I really felt bad for the fans. Looking back, Kentucky fans reflect on last year’s team a lot like UConn fans do about their own this year: It wasn't about the winning and losing as much as just enjoying the ride. Kentucky fans weren’t upset that they weren’t going to win a championship that night, as much as they were just disappointed that their season was coming to an end.
But while I’ll always have a special soft spot for Kentucky and their fans, I can’t say that I felt the same way about this year’s team. Quite the opposite actually.
I distinctly remember watching this team play for the first time this season on a Friday night against Portland, and coming away unimpressed. Sure their jersey’s still said “Kentucky,” and yes, you could see that the talent was there. But something seemed to be missing. Almost like when a TV show tries to change up their cast, and move the plot along exactly the same, that was kind of how I felt about UK basketball. Things might have appeared to be the same on the surface, but they just weren’t.
Of course in defense of this year’s kids, they were in the unfortunate position of having to follow last year’s club. Anything they did would inevitably be compared to 2010, which is kind of unfair, since last year’s team was truly incomparable.
Forget about all the stuff on the court, because off the court that Kentucky team was one of a kind too. You remember the John Wall dance, right? And DeMarcus Cousins wearing all those goofy outfits? And 25,000 people packing Rupp Arena…just for the taping of College Gameday? That group wasn’t so much a basketball team as they were rock stars. Poor Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones never stood a chance.
Really though, this comes back to my article from last March, that last year’s team was about so much more than just basketball. They were about wiping away the pain of the Billy Clyde era. They were about erasing all those knucklehead NCAA Tournament losses. Most importantly, they were about putting Kentucky back into "the college basketball discussion,” again. And that’s the great burden that this year’s club walked into.
Still, I’ve got to go back to my initial gut feeling: I was underwhelmed by this team all year.
Sure there were bad losses at Ole Miss, Alabama and Arkansas, but it was really so much more than that. It was about this team lacking mental toughness and discipline. It seemed like every time I watched this team, things always turned out the same: Kentucky would build and maintain a lead for the first 25 minutes or so, before inexplicably figuring out a way to let the opposition back into the game. Not only did this year’s team physically look young, but mentally they played like it. When last year’s team got a 10 point lead, they turned it into 20. When this year’s club got a 10 point lead, it was back to a tie ball game before you knew it. The 2011 Kentucky Wildcats had a lot of things going for them, but as far as I could tell, heart wasn’t one of them. (And in case you didn’t notice, yes I just compared this year’s Kentucky to last year’s…again. I’m telling you, it’s impossible not to).
But to the credit of some of the Kentucky fans I correspond with, they saw this turnaround coming before I did. From mid-February on they kept telling me, “Wait until we start playing people on neutral courts. We’ll be ready.” But while I wanted to believe them, I wasn’t so sure I could.
That all changed Friday night against Ohio State. Full-disclosure, I had the Buckeyes winning that game. I thought that UK could keep things close for 25 minutes or so, before Ohio State’s experience, and (keyword) mental toughness took over.
Little did I know that it was actually Kentucky which was the more mentally tough team. They were the ones getting to every loose ball. They were the ones playing suffocating defense. They were the ones who were hitting the big shots. And taking Josh Harrellson’s lead, they were the team that did all the bullying. I saw Ohio State a lot this year, but rarely did I see them rattled. They were most definitely rattled Friday night.
And after 35 or so games, I finally came full circle on Kentucky after Brandon Knight’s game winner Friday.
Again, I’ll be honest. As I mentioned before, I just haven’t had a great feel about this Kentucky team all year, and certainly not at the level that I did last season. More than ever I deferred to UK fans to get their insight and opinion on this year’s team.
So take this next comment with a grain of salt: The game-winner over Ohio State was the first time that I really felt like this was Brandon Knight’s team.
Now let me explain. I know that Knight was the Wildcats emotional leader all year, and that he'd hit big shots before last Friday, including Kentucky’s NCAA Tournament opener over Princeton. But that shot against Ohio State was really the first time that I felt like he left his indelible mark on Kentucky. That he wasn’t just the “next great Calipari point guard,” but instead, just Brandon Knight. And that he’d done something that would make him more than just “another one and done” at the school, and instead, a straight up legend.
And really, once the Wildcats got by Ohio State, it was tough not to like their chances against North Carolina. Yes I’m aware that the two played earlier in the year, and that it was advantage Tar Heels. But that game was in Chapel Hill, and again, we’ve already discussed the Wildcats road woes. And while both teams are much different than they were four months ago, based on the body of work of the last few weeks I liked the Wildcats. Thanks to another big day from Knight, “Jorts” Harrellson and DeAndre Liggins, I was proven correct.
Which brings us to a place many did not see coming: Kentucky’s first trip to the Final Four since 1998, and the chance to face-off again with my UConn Huskies.
Now obviously we could start previewing the game here, but really, what’s the rush? There’s a time and a place for that, and honestly, right now isn’t it.
Instead, now is time to celebrate. As a UConn fan, I’ve gotten to do it for the last 36 hours, and now I’m glad my friends from Kentucky can celebrate with me.
It’s time to celebrate for everyone, starting with a group of players who’ve been doubted at every step of the way. They’ve been doubted nationally and locally, the freshman for “not being John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins” and the upperclassmen as “left over’s not quite good enough to go pro.” And it looks like after all is said and done, they're getting the last laugh.
It’s time to celebrate for a coach who has spent the last few years defending his way of doing things, and been labeled as a “great recruiter,” but not a “great coach.” It’s a comment I find ironic, and one which Calipari must like shoving in people's faces right now. After all, he just spent the last two games beating two quality coaches (Thad Matta and Roy Williams) who undeniably had more talent than him, and certainly had more experienced talent.
Then again, anyone who didn’t think Calipari could coach was a fool to begin with. Name me another coach who has been to five Elite Eight’s in the last six years. You can’t, because from everything I can find no one has. The greatest compliment you can give a college basketball coach is that “He always has his team peaking in March.” Nobody fits that description quite like Calipari.
Finally, this is a time to celebrate for the Kentucky fans. I can’t say I’ve been there for every bump in the road since 1998, but I know this trip to Houston has been a long time coming.
And no group is more deserving.
Yes Kentucky fans take heat nationally, but having the job I do, I know that there isn’t a group of more passionate, intelligent or loyal fans. That night at Madison Square Garden told me everything I needed to know, and the last 16 months have just reaffirmed it. Most importantly, the folks in Kentucky are not only incredible fans, but also incredible people. No group has been more supportive of my writing since I started this site.
So here we are, back where this whole thing began. UConn vs. Kentucky, this time with a bit more on the line than the game at Madison Square Garden all those months ago.
Who’s ready for Saturday night?
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