As I begin to sit back and reflect on Monday night’s National Championship game, and the 2012 Kentucky Wildcats as a whole, I realize that there is no right way to start this article. No perfect words to capture one of the most dominating teams in recent college basketball history, a breathless collection of basketball skill and talent, which had plenty of heart and mental toughness too. There’s no easy way to explain their overall significance to the fans that adore them, and to man whose legacy they helped forever alter.
There is no right way to start discussing the Kentucky Wildcats, so let’s just begin by getting the obvious out of the way: The University of Kentucky Wildcats are your 2012 college basketball National Champions. There is no more waiting. There is no wondering. Kentucky won their eighth National Championship on Monday night, and will be hanging another banner in Rupp Arena.
The game itself though was just a part of the story, the end to the means of an incredible journey. I’m not sure if that journey started in 1998 with Kentucky’s last title, in 2009 when John Calipari was hired, or if it started somewhere in between. What I do know however is that the story of the 2012 Kentucky Wildcats alone isn’t what makes them so darn fascinating. It’s also the story behind the story too.
First, let’s talk about Monday night’s game… and my goodness what a game it was. It didn’t start that way, and in the middle looked more like a coronation of Kentucky’s greatness than a matchup between two of college basketball’s elite teams. But it did turn into an instant classic, maybe not the greatest game of all time, but one we’ll remember forever.
If anything those first 33 or so minutes kind of turned into exactly what I’d expected. Yes Kansas was excellent all year and a deserving adversary on Monday night. They also weren’t Kentucky either. Now that’s not a knock on the Kansas, and is not intended as a way to describe what the Jayhawks “weren’t” entering Monday night’s game, as much as it is to praise what Kentucky “was.”
And what the Wildcats were, were a team which always seemed to play their best when the lights got bright, and the stage got big. It happened in the Sweet 16 against Indiana, in the Elite Eight against Baylor in the Final Four against Louisville. Every round there was something going on, a story bigger than the game itself, something taking away from simply playing basketball. And at every step Kentucky channeled everything else out, focused in, and figured out a way to get a comfortable win. Because of it, I didn’t expect Monday night to be any different. Yes the stakes were big, but when you’re the 2012 Kentucky Wildcats, the stakes are always big. I went on record to pick the Cats by 15 last night.
And for the first 33 minutes or so, Kentucky made me look like a pretty smart guy (which I assure you is the first time that’s happened).
Those first 33 minutes Kentucky did everything that Kentucky has done all year. They ran an efficient offense. They played suffocating defense. Anthony Davis patrolled the paint and put a nice, fat “return to sender” stamp on anything delivered to him. Doron Lamb hit open shots, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist drove to the hoop at 1,000 miles an hour, and John Calipari paced the sideline like a soon-to-be-dad anxiously hanging out in a waiting room. Everything that happened those first 33 minutes Monday night was simply about Kentucky being Kentucky.
Until it wasn’t anymore.
All of a sudden Kentucky wasn’t Kentucky anymore, at least not in the way we’ve known them since November anyway. Those open jumpers didn’t go down so smooth. The air came out of the ball, the points stopped coming, and for a while there, it seemed like the clock stopped ticking. All of a sudden, an insurmountable lead became well, surmountable, and the worst part was there was nothing anyone could do about it, with the exception of the five guys on the court. The rest of us were left to sit, and watch and think to ourselves, “No way. This cannot be happening again.” You and I both know what “this” is, and you better believe John Calipari was thinking the same.
Well thankfully for Kentucky fans and long-time Calipari supporters alike, “this” never actually did happen. The free throws that didn’t fall for Memphis team in 2008 did Monday night. The three-point shot that abandoned the Wildcats in 2010 before the West Virginia game came late courtesy of Marquis Teague. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist made the defensive play of his life. And it all resulted in a National Championship, the title that Calipari and Big Blue Nation have been waiting for.
And with that, all of a sudden, the weight is gone.
Ok, I take that back. The weight is never technically gone in Lexington, a city that’s too often compared to other SEC outposts like Tuscaloosa and Knoxville, but in reality reminds me a lot more of New York and Los Angeles. Believe me, I’ve lived near New York most of life and have spent plenty of time in LA, and the common denominator those two places have with Lexington is this: In New York, the expectation is to win the World Series every year the Yankees take the field. It’s the same in Los Angeles, where you can drive around on any of one of the 365 days on the calendar, and hear sports talk radio discussing the Lakers pursuit of another NBA title. Well, Lexington is just the same. Everyone will soak up every ounce of this year’s championship… before moving on to the pursuit of No. 9 in Atlanta, in 2013. I’m sure many already have.
For now though, let’s focus on No. 8, because this one was about a lot of things, some which had to do with what happened Monday night, and some that didn’t. Going back to last year for a second, it reminds me of UConn’s title in a way. At the time I coined a phrase that “all championships aren’t created equal” a moniker which I believe translates well to Kentucky this year. Last year was extra special for UConn fans, in the same way that Monday night was extra special for Kentucky fans too.
You see, No. 8 wasn’t just about No. 8 itself, or even just about 2012 for that matter, but also about the lost years and opportunities along the way. It was about teams that didn’t get No. 8 (which I’ll be the first to admit I don’t know much about) like those in 2003 and 2004, as well as the ones that got away in 2009 and 2010 as well. Yes Monday night was about Anthony Davis and Terrence Jones and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. It was also about John Wall, DeAndre Liggins and DeMarcus Cousins too.
Again, I don’t know everything there is to know about Kentucky basketball and would never claim to. Where this team fits into the hierarchy of past Kentucky teams is for the media folks in Kentucky to discuss. What I will tell you though, is that in some, tiny, abstract way, I do know how important this title is to Kentucky. That’s because although I didn’t fully realize it until last night, I’m proud to say that I was in the building the night Kentucky basketball was reborn, and started the ascent to the top of the mountain that finished last night.
That night came in December 2009, and at the time I thought I was just going to a UConn-Kentucky basketball game at Madison Square Garden. It wasn’t until after the game that I realized I’d stumbled into something much more. That UConn-Kentucky game was a lot of things; tense, anxious, and also quite possibly the single best basketball environment I’ve ever been in. At the same time, it was also the first real litmus-test game for John Calipari at the school. It was the first chance Kentucky fans got to throw out the recruiting rankings, cut through the hype, and find out if this thing, this coach, this John Calipari guy- the one who had promised the world- could actually deliver. It was time to find out if there was sizzle or steak, style or substance. As we found out that night, maybe Kentucky was onto something after all.
That’s just my opinion of that night, but it really did feel like that was the start of everything that led up to last night. The missed three’s against West Virginia, the missed opportunities against UConn, and all the hype that preceded this 2012 team were bumps along the way. Monday night in New Orleans, that was real. There were no more excuses. This year, this was the team. It was championship or bust.
And in a lot of ways, that fact alone makes the story of this year’s team that much more unique: That they had the weight of the world on their shoulders since the day they walked on campus in July. That wasn’t really the case in 2010, when everything felt more like a honeymoon and everyone was just happy to be along for the ride. It also didn’t happen in 2011, which- as I mentioned last week- was perceived to be a bridge year from Day 1. In 2012 there were no excuses. The Cats needed to bring home a title.
Not only did they do just that, but also did so under the most adverse conditions possible.
It’s interesting, because a quote that John Calipari has said quite a few times throughout this season is that, “Playing at Kentucky isn’t for everyone.” It really, truly isn’t. And it wasn’t until I watched this season unfold that I began to appreciate it.
In a lot of ways this season worked backwards, a Benjamin Button movie come to life. Everyone seemed to hand Kentucky the title in November (or at least put them in the driver’s seat alongside North Carolina) and from there Kentucky had to work from back to front, and earn everything along the way, that many had already been handed to them in November. Well, backward officially became forward Monday night.
And speaking of along the way, this team- this insanely, incredibly, disgustingly young team- did in fact prove those doubters wrong. Every single night, Kentucky got everyone’s best shot, and time after time they delivered. That didn’t just happen against North Carolina and Indiana in December, but also on days like the one that I was at Rupp Arena in January. That afternoon Alabama was clearly undermanned, but instead of backing down, bawled up their fists, and forced the Wildcats into a street fight. Just like 37 other times this season, Kentucky didn’t flinch. Every time John Calipari lined ‘em up, this team more or less knocked ‘em down.
Looking at the big picture, the next question becomes how will this Kentucky team be remembered? They’ll obviously be revered in Lexington forever (Mark my words: Anthony Davis will never have to pay for an eye brow wax in Lexington for the rest of his life), but in a lot of ways, I think they’ll actually be remembered a bit like the Fab Five two decades ago. Call me crazy, but remember that the Fab Five was a group that not only resonated culturally, but kicked down doors along the way, and proved that there aren’t any limitations to success when you blend talent and hard work and coaching together. Of course as good as the Fab Five were, they never accomplished what Kentucky did Monday night either.
Either way in the grand scheme of college basketball, I think this team will have the same impact. The doubters have said for years that a team composed primarily of freshman could never win a title (you know, despite the fact that Syracuse basically did it 10 years ago). That no group of guys would be willing to sacrifice so much, on a stage so big, all for the good of team and program. That you had to be built like 2008 Kansas or 2009 North Carolina or 2010 Duke, with maybe a freshman or two supplanted by juniors and seniors.
Yeah, about that. Kentucky proved that you don’t need seniors and juniors, just the right collection of talent. Regardless of age.
They’ve also changed how we perceive the entire one-and-done model.
What do I mean by that? Mainly that by design we as fans aren’t supposed to like one-and-done model. We’re supposed to believe that there’s something culturally and morally wrong about an 18-year-old kid using a college campus as an eight-month weigh station to the NBA. Again, that’s what we’re supposed to believe. Forget the fact that virtually every elite program now has one-and-dones on their roster (cough… Duke… cough), or that neither the players nor coaches made up the rule. There’s just something that seems so… wrong about the whole thing.
Except there isn’t anything wrong, and this Kentucky proved that.
The truth is, scour any random group of college basketball fans, and they’ll admit that while they might not like Kentucky, while they might not appreciate Calipari, they can’t help but looooove Anthony Davis. Believe me, I’ve heard it a million times this year.
And it’s that sentiment that proves that the one-and-done model can work. That not every kid who uses college as a one year pit-stop is an ego-driven, celebrity-hungry, educationally-apathetic guy who will take the money and run the first chance they get. That you can be 18-years-old, that you can put your ego aside, that you can play defense, that you can sacrifice minutes and stats and acclaim for the good of the team. That the terms “one-and-done” and “doing things the right way” don’t have to be independent variables, but can be dependent variables as well.
The change has already begun.
Seriously, did you notice this week how the entire tenor of the Final Four did in fact change? Sure, some of that may have been Bourbon Street, the smooth jazz and those delicious hurricanes that everyone in the media was drinking all week. At the same time, was I the only one who picked up on how complimentary everyone was toward Kentucky this week? How for the first time since John Calipari got to Kentucky, everyone started to educate themselves, and get the facts straight on Coach Cal? How people started to realize that what Kentucky has done the last three years might be unconventional, but has never, ever been immoral?
More importantly, did you notice how everyone finally started to see all the things that I’ve been writing about, and Kentucky fans have been preaching for years? About how hard Cal’s teams play, how well they defend, how much they defer to each other? Did you notice how- and I can’t believe I’m going to say this- that all of a sudden it became “cool” to like Kentucky? You couldn’t have said that a year ago, or even a month ago. You can say that today.
All that has changed, and it’s thanks to this Kentucky team. Not just the freshmen like Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist, but also the “older” players like Darius Miller, Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones too. Believe me, those guys sacrificed just as much as anyone.
As a matter of fact, maybe my favorite part of this whole run for Kentucky actually came after Monday night’s win.
For those who didn’t see it, after everything went final Monday night, truTV closed out their coverage by taking us into Kentucky’s locker room for John Calipari’s postgame speech. There, Cal did what he always does, deflecting the attention from himself, and letting every guy in the room know how he helped win the title. Sure some of it was attributed to Anthony Davis, but Cal was also quick to praise Kyle Wiltjer for coming to Kentucky when he could’ve gone elsewhere and played more, or Kidd-Gilchrist for sacrificing his starting spot to get Darius Miller going in the SEC Tournament. I know it sounds like I’m blowing smoke, but watching that, for the first time I truly understood what Calipari means when he says that Kentucky is a “player’s first program.” It truly is in every sense of the word.
As we begin to look ahead, the scary thing for the rest of college basketball is that this is only just the beginning. Remember, that while the rest of the media was scrambling to write their “this isn’t the last Kentucky championship we’ll see” columns last night, I already wrote the same thing a week ago. I really do believe we are at the beginning stages of a Kentucky dynasty.
But to any Kentucky fan who is reading, all I ask is that you don’t look too far ahead, and take a moment to appreciate this right now. The way I felt about last year’s UConn team is what’s important to remember today: All championships aren’t created equally.
Enjoy this moment. They don’t come around too often.
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And finally if you haven't heard, Aaron Torres has written a new book, 'The Unlikeliest Champion' on last year's NCAA Tournament Champion UConn Huskies. It's available in paperback and on Kindle right now at Amazon.com!)