It’s difficult to find the words to describe this team, this season, these past few weeks and this current moment in Kentucky basketball history. But we’ll give it a try anyway, and there’s one word that seems best suited.
Rarely will you ever see a team lose five first round NBA draft picks and improve the following season. And make no mistake, this is a better team than last year. It actually has more offensive weapons, shoots better and plays better halfcourt defense. And of course, this team is much greater than the sum of its parts—despite their occasional dominance, the 2009-2010 Cats never found the chemistry that this one possesses. In fact, if you matched up last year’s rotation with this year’s, man for man, which team would you rather take with the clock winding down?
Rarely will you see a team lose six consecutive road games by a combined 19 points in the regular season, only to channel that collective late game suffering and win four consecutive nail-biting NCAA tournament games at the wire. We wrote here earlier this season that we hoped the road struggles would make Kentucky a better team, and that we hoped some of the close losses would even out. Ironically, with two more wins, all will be square.
Rarely will you find a basketball team that plays with this kind of grit, determination and heart. Kentucky didn’t back down while trailing West Virginia, the team that knocked them out of last year’s tourney, by eight points at halftime. The Cats didn’t back down when Ohio State and then North Carolina tied it up in the waning minutes. They’ve faced talent, coaching and all sorts of dangerous opponents. But they keep scratching and clawing back.
Rarely does a group of young, talented newcomers blend so well with a much maligned crop of holdovers from a bygone and bankrupt legacy. Sure, UK’s freshmen triumvirate provides most of the points and the headlines, but where would these guys be without Liggins, Miller and Harrellson? My guess? Watching the tournament on TV somewhere. No offense to the youngins, but the heart and soul of this team lies in the upperclassmen.
Rarely does a team have to face so many nemeses in one journey. These Cats have stared them all down. The quintessential upset special in the first round from a team (Princeton) known in college basketball by their ability to punch above their weight. Then the team (West Virginia) that ended last year’s dream, the one coached by the man John Calipari can never beat. How about the top overall seed in the entire tournament from a school (Ohio State) that even tradition-rich Kentucky had never beaten in the NCAA tournament? And then the juggernaut from Tobacco Road, one of only a handful of teams with a historical tradition rivaling UK’s own (North Carolina), who holds an all-time series edge on the Cats and was 2-0 all time in NCAA Regional Finals and 1-0 vs. Kentucky this season. And now UK can look at the horizon and see waiting for them the only team this season that beat them convincingly (UConn).
Rarely can a team find so many heroes in so many unlikely spots. Over the past three weeks, the Wildcats have at one time or another been able to point to one of six different players as the catalyst behind an epic late-season surge. There was Doron Lamb’s scoring frenzy in the first two rounds of the SEC tourney, then Miller’s capture of the SEC Tourney MVP. Terrence Jones’ huge shots vs. Florida, Ohio State and North Carolina. Harrellson’s transformation into a guy on whom sportswriters pen thousand-word human interest pieces. Brandon Knight’s multiple game winning shots. And perhaps most inspiring of all was the suffocating defense and big shot tendencies of DeAndre Liggins, whose toughness and attitude embodies the fierce will of these Wildcats.
The list could go on and on. Simply put, now is a monumental occasion for Kentucky basketball. But I will finish with this thought. Rarely do a fanbase and program so accustomed to fame and glory get a chance to be reminded of how fleeting and precious these moments are, how difficult the mountain is to climb and how great it feels to get back on top. Sure, you can argue that Kentucky fans are spoiled by success through the ages. But let’s be objective. Very few sports entities have a passionate following whose lives intertwine so deeply and who identify themselves so closely with their team. The 13-year Final Four drought for Kentucky was a long and difficult road for the Commonwealth. But it gave us a little perspective on what we have. Rarely does such a proud group as the Big Blue Nation get a chance to recall and appreciate the sweetness that it formerly took for granted. We must be thankful for this rare instant in time, when this rare group of kids brought us back to the precipice. Because win or lose next week, let there be no fooling, the Kentucky Wildcats are back and the rest of the hoops world just got put on notice.go back