Now is not the time to ponder what could have been.
Now is the time to reflect, to recollect and to cherish. Now is the time to remove the emotions of disappointment, anguish and desolation and replace them with adoration, compassion and benevolence.
The Kentucky basketball team provided fans with smiles as wide as the bluegrass state and memories that will be shared for generations. Sweat, blood, time and tears were sacrificed selflessly by the Wildcats for the fans who do the same for their loved ones. The accomplishments of this Kentucky team must never be misconstrued or forgotten.
Kentucky basketball absorbed a blow on Monday night during the NCAA National Championship game, but it did not collapse. After erupting through a seemingly impenetrable Midwest region, the Wildcats were defeated by a Connecticut team that possessed an invincible collective emotion.
For two weeks, the emotion that fueled Connecticut was impalpable. How the seven-seeded Huskies were able to defeat some of the top teams in the country was an anomaly. On Monday night, that enigmatic emotion was finally revealed. Connecticut was playing with anger.
UConn senior Shabazz Napier was the most furious player on the court on Monday night. Furious, not with the unnerving seven seed the Huskies received three weeks ago, but the seed the team did not receive last year.
Connecticut was banned from postseason play last season because of low NCAA Academic Progress Rate scores in recent years. Napier watched head coach Jim Calhoun retire and teammates transfer from the school Napier adored. After the game ended, the moment Napier had desired for two years was finally captured, and it was not the “One Shining Moment” cameo, it was a moment of revenge.
When Jim Nance handed the microphone to the Most Outstanding Player, the entire world witnessed the frustration Napier had bottled up for nearly two years explode. Napier had probably rehearsed the lines in his head hundreds of times. Despite holding the microphone with millions of people already holding on to every word that was about to be said, Napier asked for the world’s attention.
Napier desperately wanted the entire planet to listen closely to the player who had quietly led the Huskies to the championship title for the second time in four years. Napier passionately spoke into the microphone these words.
“This is what happens. This is what happens when you ban us.”
Led by an infuriated point guard with enough fire in his eyes to shove teammate Ryan Boatright with the ball in hand in the midst of the championship game, Napier and the Huskies defied the NCAA rules and selection committees that doubted the Huskies’ worthiness. The name on the front of the jersey of the opposing team mattered little to a Connecticut team fueled by animosity toward the NCAA that had been cultivating for more than a year and finally burst through the airwaves on Monday night.
Kentucky was asked to enter this Dallas den full of bloodthirsty Huskies. This was the challenge the Wildcats faced, after being forced to combat four other teams determined and forecast by a committee to obliterate them.
Consider the journey of the Kentucky Wildcats.
In June 2013, expectations spread rapidly throughout the Big Blue Nation. Major sports news media realized the marketability of the Kentucky freshman class and capitalized on the excitement, proclaiming the class as the “greatest of all time.”
Flash forward to Oct. 12 in Chicago and the amplified spotlight shining from the national, regional and local members of the sports medium was positioned directly on the faces of the freshmen-led, top ranked Wildcats. Seven freshmen and two sophomores appeared in the game for Kentucky, the same seven who played for the Wildcats on Monday night.
The Wildcats lost to Michigan State that night, a loss the aforementioned media members perceived to be a tiny glitch for a championship-guaranteed machine.
Kentucky lost again on Dec. 6, this time against Baylor, a team considered to be futile in comparison to the unstoppable Wildcats. Support from the fan base continued to flow.
Kentucky answered the beat-a-good-team challenge on Dec. 28 with a home victory over nemesis Louisville. The UK faithful resurged and the championship aspirations returned to preseason levels.
Then the Wildcat fan version of tragedy struck. The passage into 2014 was not a joyful occasion, as the new year brought new embarrassment. First, the Wildcats were defeated by Arkansas on Jan. 14. Those fans who faithfully stood by Kentucky despite inexplicable losses rose to the Wildcat defense.
“It was on the road, it was overtime, it was a lucky last-second dunk.”
After a road loss against LSU on Jan. 28, defenders of the Wildcats who wanted to keep spirits alive were faced with a more difficult challenge. After a seven-game stretch between Feb. 15 and March 1 resulted in four losses against SEC opponents, including one to last-place South Carolina, Kentucky was a commonwealth of chaos.
When an adult buys a new car, jubilance is often the first emotion. The adult wants to tell everyone about the excellence of the car, how the car was the greatest in its class, how the car will likely be the best car in the neighborhood and the performance will be unheralded. Some car owners may even refer to the car as the “greatest of all time.”
What often happens next usually leads to a change in perception. The car may have problems that need attention. The owner of the car may be shocked when the car needs new spark plugs, because the ones thought to be capable of always providing enough voltage could no longer function.
The car owner may even be ignorant enough to believe the car does not need an oil change, despite the obvious friction taking place among crucial pistons that make the car perform with incredible success. Or maybe the car owner is too impatient to realize the solution for the overheating problem is a simple replacement of the thermostat, and after the adjustments the car will run wonderfully, maybe even better than expected.
The adult who bought the new car, the same one who told the world how great it was going to be, decided to blame all of the problems on the car that never promised a thing.
The analysts and fans who tossed the you-have-to-win-the-championship-because-we-said-you-would burden onto the 18- and 19-year old shoulders of the UK recruiting class are that impatient, delusional car owner. The Kentucky Wildcats never asked for the preseason number one ranking or the lofty expectations, but were pelted with negativity shots all season.
As the losses piled up, the same analysts and fans who called the class the “greatest in history” had given up hope and decided to attack the young Wildcats, even though the team’s problems were easy to fix and all the Wildcats needed was a great mechanic/coach.
UK head coach John Calipari pleaded for fans and analysts to be patient and to let the team grow, figuratively and literally. Even when the foolish and poorly-defended cliché “he’s just a recruiter, not a coach” reemerged, Calipari had the best interest of the players in mind, which is why Calipari is the best recruiter, and one of the best coaches in college basketball.
Most Kentucky fans are loyal. Most stuck by Calipari with bated breath, believing in Calipari and the “tweak.” A vocal minority did not and proclaimed the end of the season two weeks before the tournament through social media publication. The miniscule number of fans who lost hope for the Wildcats probably felt shame, while the true Big Blue Nation members felt elation. The Wildcats seized the hearts and television remotes of college basketball fans everywhere with an improbable victory against previously-undefeated Wichita State in the Midwest region.
The team had been playing well since “The Tweak” announcement, but the victory over the one-seed Shockers was absolutely flawless basketball. From the moment Wichita State’s desperation three-pointer bounced off of the rim, the Wildcats regained the national attention.
This time, the national spotlight was not too bright. The Wildcats continued to play with a new-found sense of selflessness as new heroes etched names into the unwritten, proverbial book of Kentucky basketball folklore.
As I previously wrote, Aaron Harrison became the most clutch player in the history of the tournament with three consecutive game-winning three-pointers. Aaron and twin brother Andrew’s child-like enthusiasm for the tournament sent chills down the Big Blue spine.
When Andrew Harrison struggled early in the season, (as most Calipari points guards do) critics referred to Andrew as the weaker of the twins and explained Andrew only came because the two were a “package deal.” If the twins were indeed a package deal, the package was two PS4s. Andrew Harrison’s confidence soared in this tournament.
Randle showcased unheralded ability from the power forward position in the NCAA Tournament. Randle, who found a solution to double-team problems by simply muscling through defenders, will be considered forever as one of the greatest players to ever wear the UK uniform. Without Randle, the Wildcats may have been playing against Minnesota in the National Invitational Tournament championship rather than on Monday night.
Young hit two crucial three-pointers in the upset win over Wichita State and played valiantly in the final four games as well. When Connecticut attempted to bully the Wildcats and pull away, Young slammed it on two UC defenders with ferocity. That dunk and the man who performed it will be remembered for an eternity.
Cauley-Stein came back to Kentucky on a mission for justice. Cauley-Stein sacrificed a starting spot, to a freshman, because of a lack of depth off the bench for the Wildcats. Unfortunately, Cauley-Stein was reduced to crutches during the Louisville Sweet 16 game, but kept the passion burning by providing fans with the Wildcat bench perspective with the “Willie Cam” camera.
Johnson, the youngest Wildcat of all, played like a senior. Johnson provided passion and key rebounding for the team when the Wildcats needed it the most. Johnson’s sleepy look deceived opponents as Dakari provided crucial hustle for the Wildcats.
Speaking of hustle. Without Lee’s four energizing put-back dunks in the first half against Michigan in the Elite 8, the Wildcats would have likely never made it to Dallas. Lee sacrificed playing time to be a part of Kentucky during the regular season, and when the opportunity arose to help the team even more, Lee delivered on a massive stage.
The still-in-progress transformation of Alex the Great has been dubbed “The Alex Poythress Project.” Calipari displayed love for all of the Wildcats during this immaculate tournament run, but especially for Poythress. Several times in the tournament, Calipari hugged and kissed Poythress. Coach Calipari is proud of Poythress and so is the Big Blue nation.
The freshman Hawkins provided the team with critical defense and hustle plays. Hawkins will be loved by Kentucky fans for seasons and years to come.
Jarrod Polson and Jon Hood
Polson and Hood were the only seniors on this freshmen-heavy team. Polson, a Kentucky native, contributed crucial minutes for the Wildcats during the season and was a fan favorite all year. Polson overcame the pessimists who doubted he would even play a minute on this team. Hood, another Kentucky native and a fifth-year senior, battled a knee injury and a lack of playing time, but provided Calipari with insight that Coach Cal (brilliantly) cared enough to hear.
Kentucky sacrificed it all for the Big Blue nation. Tears flowed in the Kentucky locker room just like tears soaked the cheeks of Wildcat families in living rooms on Monday night.
The question on the Big Blue mind today and every April day in recent years is “who will return, and who will go pro?”
That question will be answered soon, but for now, it is time to give thanks. For a little more than three weeks, the 2013-2014 Kentucky Wildcats caused members of the Big Blue Nation to forget the daily struggles of life and replace anguish with jubilance and optimism.
Thank you, Kentucky basketball.