A Little Extra Motivation

A Little Extra Motivation

By DR. JOHN HUANG, Nolan Group Media

(LEXINGTON, KY.) – As a die-hard Kentucky fan, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that most of my basketball memories are negative ones. In fact, I daresay that the most indelible ones often involve the year-end heartbreaking defeats. Dating back to the Mideast Regional loss to Jacksonville in 1970, I can tell you exactly where I was every single year that the Wildcats’ season came to an abrupt end. The Laettner shot, Bogans’ sprained ankle, and the Wisconsin shot clock violations all coalescing into a nightmarish potpourri of anger, depression, and grief.

Despite reports to the contrary, it seems that Kentucky fans often do care more about wins and losses than the players themselves. Especially in this decade of one and done, our beloved on-court prodigies quickly move past disappointment. Not long after the final buzzer, they’re basking in the glow of massive NBA contracts and lavish lifestyles while the “average Joe fan” wallows in the pain and agony of yet another tournament loss. If only the players would stick around long enough to experience the heartache, to feel our pain—then surely they’d be extra motivated the next time around.

During the most recent media opportunity, I asked each of the four returning UK players about just that topic. To a man, they said the Auburn loss at the end of the season still grates at their collective core. It serves as a constant reminder and motivational force to propel them to greater heights. Whether that means another Final Four or a Championship trophy remains to be seen. But for a guy bent on spending the first weekend in April at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in Atlanta this upcoming Spring, their words were sweet melodies to my expectant ears and a much-needed salve for my wounded soul.

Sophomore guard Immanuel Quickley figures to garner significant minutes in the backcourt this year. He certainly hasn’t forgotten about that fateful day in Kansas City. “I probably think about it almost every day,” he confessed. “Just knowing that we were that close to getting to a Final Four. You watch it on TV, but to play in the Final Four would have been really cool. It kind of hurts that we didn’t get to do that.”

Backcourt mate Ashton Hagans agreed wholeheartedly. The Wildcats’ sophomore starting point guard appeared cool, confident, and composed—until he was asked about that season-ending defeat. “It’s actually been in the back of my head a lot,” he lamented. “It’s just one of those feelings that will never go away because you were so close. The bond that we created (last year), it was just different. Knowing that we can’t do it with the same group…it hurt. But that just adds fuel to the fire. So you just have to come in, knowing what you could have done last year—just bring it in and just leave it on the court this year.”

Sophomore forward EJ Montgomery was the last of the teammates to pull his name out of the upcoming NBA draft. Temporarily passing on the opportunity to fulfill his dream, he vividly remembers the tearful locker room after the overtime loss to Auburn, and he claims that it’s a definite factor in upping his game this year. “No one wants to go through that, (the disappointment) of times with your team,” he said. “You gotta put in work in the gym. We have some returnees that all felt that, so we’re just going to try our best to get farther.”

OK, who are we kidding? I’m not saying any of these guys returned to school solely to win another national title. Those team-oriented goals and dreams left town with the likes of Kenny Walker and Roger Harden. Granted, times were different back when they played—a bygone era when love for your school trumped even one’s individual career goals. In this day and age of players focused solely on taking their games to the next level, is it even possible that they’d be motivated by defeat?  

Perhaps junior center Nick Richards said it best. After all, he’s suffered through two crushing season-ending upsets—to Kansas State as a freshman and to Auburn as a sophomore. “Those two losses are actually just motivation for me and my game,” he readily admitted. “Just trying to motivate this team. Just to make it to that championship, just to hold up that trophy, just to be on that stage is real motivation for me. I always think about those losses every single day.”

Me too, Nick. With the exception of four years in my lifetime, every Wildcat season has ended in abject disaster. It’s virtually impossible for fans like me to forgive and forget. We’re all hoping that Championship #9 is just around the corner—and that for the returning UK players, a little extra motivation is all that’s needed to get them over the hump.

“That’s the goal for every team—to make it to the Final Four and just win the National Championship,” Nick added.

For all of BBN, we couldn’t agree more.

Dr. John Huang covers University of Kentucky sports for Nolan Group Media. If you enjoy his writing, you can read more at www.huangswhinings.com or follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.  

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Derby Sober

Derby Sober

(LOUISVILLE, Ky.) – Truth be told, the Kentucky Derby really isn’t about the horse race. What really captures one’s imagination is the spectacle of the entire Derby Day experience. Oh sure, history will note that Country House won the 145th annual “Run for the Roses” after Maximum Security was disqualified for interference. But the real memories of the first Saturday in May always fall back to the pageantry, the traditions, and the pomp and ceremony taking place in and around the race itself.

“It’s a great moment,” said winning jockey Flavien Prat. “It’s a dream come true…it’s amazing. I mean, there’s no race like the Kentucky Derby. And I was hoping to ride it, ride the Derby, and to win it.”

Few venues in the sporting world dare to rival the iconic twin spires of Churchill Downs. The ivy at Wrigley Field, Notre Dame’s Touchdown Jesus, or the Green Monster at Fenway you say? Those are decent choices, but they usually conjure up images of specific teams or season-long events. You show anyone a picture of those quintessential Churchill steeples, however, and all thoughts zoom directly to the Kentucky Derby. For one specific day out of the year, the entire sporting world focuses on our little corner of the Bluegrass State—our ultimate claim to fame. For you see, it’s not the regal, four-legged, three-year-old thoroughbreds that make for the most exciting two minutes in sports—but rather the bourbon, the burgoo, and the big hats that end up capturing our fanciful imaginations.

I grew up in the Commonwealth, but this is only my second official Kentucky Derby—my first as a credentialed media member. Like your first dog, your first car, or your first wife, it’ll forever be hard to top the sentimentality of that initial experience.

https://huangswhinings.com/2016/04/21/kentucky-fried-derby

But being part of the press corps this time around definitely has its advantages. As a scribe for Sports View America, I’m getting in for free.

According to StubHub, the Derby’s not cheap. A general admission ticket for a spot in the infield usually runs you eighty bucks—an option I wouldn’t recommend, unless you’re someone under thirty with a bon-a-fide death wish. Want to upgrade? A decent seat in the grandstand will likely set you back three to four hundred dollars. If you really want to waste your money, try Millionaires Row—where for a cool six grand, you’ll likely rub elbows with celebrities like Tom Brady, Jennifer Lawrence, or one of the Kardashians.

Speaking of celebrities, the Derby’s really just a glorified fashion show. Both sexes dressed to the nines—or tens for that matter. Seersucker suits, oversized fascinators, and hideous hats grace the walkways. It’s at events like the Derby when you suddenly realize that one man’s fashion is another man’s clown suit. Regardless of perspective, you can dress like a bum if you’re a member of the media. No need to spring for outlandish suspenders or Gucci shoes. Faded jeans, a flannel shirt, and that prized credentialed lanyard hanging around your neck will get you up close and personal to the horseflesh at hand.

Parking, food, and accessible toilets are additional media perks for me this year. Unlike before, I’m not paying thirty bucks for a two-mile hike to the track with porta potty privileges along the way. Instead, I’ve got a reserved spot in the media lot, just a short jaunt to the hallowed front gates. Once inside, I’m treated to quite the spread at the Derby day media buffet. Meats, salads, and desserts all laid out for you to grab and go. No alcohol, though. If you want a sip of that $15 mint julep, you’re on your own. Which begs the question: Can you really enjoy the Kentucky Derby if you’re completely sober? I’m about to find out.

Everyone at this Derby appears just a tad bit tipsy. It’s one big party—and who doesn’t enjoy being the life of the party? Even so, there are two lines of inebriation you simply can’t cross. Don’t get sick, and don’t get naked. Abstaining from liquid courage, I wisely avoided both—leaving the cookie tossing and wardrobe malfunctions to those far less inhibited.

You’d think bad weather would have discouraged some of the crowds today. That wasn’t the case as 150,729 filed in despite the chilly and messy rain. It made for some long and soggy lines at the betting windows—and even longer ones for the food kiosks and bathrooms. Often times, just walking around became a challenge. The pungency of the spilled liquor, grilled meats, body odor, damp air, and ubiquitous cigar smoke became noticeably more unpleasant as the day wore on. Looking around, trash piled up everywhere. The only thing messier was the postrace traffic—horrifically long shuttle waits, Uber lines, and jumbled backups tripling the usual time needed to get home.

Can you enjoy the Derby while sober? If you don’t like crowds, gambling, long lines, drunk people, sick people, loud people, bad traffic, bad weather, bad smells, bad internet, and bad steward rulings, then the answer is a resounding “NO!” But not all events in life are meant to be pleasant. It’s the unique experiences that we so often covet, and many aspects of the Kentucky Derby remain distinguishingly unique. The pre-Derby singing of My Old Kentucky Home is still one of the most sentimental and memorable experiences in all of sports.

When I asked winning trainer Bill Mott what the most memorable aspect of his Kentucky Derby experience was, here’s what he told me. “You know what I enjoy the most is just training the horses. I mean, that’s what I live for—get up in the morning, come out and see the horses…I woke up this morning and said “Oh (bleep), this is here. It’s finally here…When you finally reach a point when the training goes well, it’s actually very memorable. That part of it means the most to me.”

“…walking into that circle at Churchill Downs, it’s a pretty special event,” Mott continued. “Why do it the easy way, you know what I mean?”

Having just covered my first Kentucky Derby and seeing history being made, I know exactly what he means.

Dr. John Huang is lead writer for Sports View America. This column was featured in the Apr/May print edition of Sports View America Publications. If you enjoy his writing, you can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.

Let Freedom Ring

Let Freedom Ring

This blog posting really isn’t about basketball at all—which is exactly my reason for writing it.

Final Four? I don’t care. I guess I’m a sore loser. The minute Kentucky gets eliminated in the NCAA tournament, I just want to get as far away from basketball as possible. Two years ago, after UNC’s Luke Maye sent the Wildcats prematurely packing, I immediately started packing for my own trip to Turks and Caicos. When Kansas State upset the Big Blue last year, I booked the first flight out for the Florida gulf coast. This year, unfortunately, I’m headed out early again—to someplace far away from Minneapolis, where I can put overtime losses to Bruce Pearl completely out of sight and out of mind.

You see, less than twenty-four hours after returning from the disappointment in Kansas City, I was stuffing my suitcase for Washington, DC. I’ve been there many times over the course of my lifetime, but never while the cherry blossoms were in full bloom. I’m killing two birds with one stone on this trip—making my wife happy and NOT watching basketball during the first weekend in April.

Ah, the memories come flooding back. My first visit to our nation’s capital was with my mom and dad back in the mid-1960s. As newly minted, starry-eyed, first generation immigrants from China, my parents wanted to show first hand—to their number one son—the sights and symbols representing their personal pursuit of the American Dream. Where better than Washington, DC, where founding fathers and freedom fighters named Washington, Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln stood sentinel over democracy? Granted, I was only six years old at the time, but something deep down inside of me still resonated with this Land of Opportunity. Even back then, the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness sounded pretty darned good to me.

I returned to DC again in the early 1980s, this time as a recent college graduate, indoctrinated with the liberal agenda and misguided cynicism flowing out of all university campuses. The city had a different vibe for me this time around. Thoughts of American imperialism, social injustice, and racial inequality sadly replaced the wide-eyed innocence of my earlier visit. With malice towards none; charity for all suddenly became a slogan that pipedreams were made of. Not going to happen in this America, I surmised at the time.

I returned to Washington again in the early 1990s, a thirty-something professional with a beautiful wife and one-year-old daughter in tow. Ten years in the military with a stint living overseas, and my thoughts on America had changed. The good ole’ USA was now all about capitalism—making a buck, keeping up with the Joneses, and paying off your mortgage. To me, DC represented all that was worth striving for—the money of the Federal Reserve, the power on Capitol Hill, and the status of the West Wing. I have a dream. It was a different dream than Dr. Martin Luther King had, but it was my dream, nonetheless.

And now, nearly three decades later, I’m back again—armed with a lifetime of experiences and a bucketload of supposedly new wisdom. It’s somewhat bittersweet. My mom has since passed, my daughter is all grown up, and I’ve been retired and put out to pasture. On a beautiful sunny weekday morning, I stroll leisurely along the National Mall, with plenty of time to ruminate about life’s regrets, growing old, and what America has meant to me.

Over a half a century as a naturalized American citizen gives me a perspective grounded mostly in gratitude. I’m grateful for many things—a fine education, access to health care, and languorous walks with my dog. But as I pause in front of all the different war memorials, I realize that the thing I’m mostly grateful for in America is freedom. Freedom to speak, write, gather, and worship as I choose. The United States of America still has its faults, but in terms of individual freedom, it remains the greatest nation on the face of the earth.

Walking up the steps of the Jefferson Memorial, I’m reminded that with freedom comes responsibility. Freedom isn’t free. Many have died fighting for it. May we think of freedom, not as the right to do as we please, but as the opportunity to do what is right.” (author unknown)

Our Founding Fathers got it right in the beginning. We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…” May Washington, DC remain forever a bastion of liberty and a beacon for democracy. Let freedom ring!

By the way, the cherry blossoms were beautiful in April. My wife is happy. Final Four? Who does Duke play again?

Dr. John Huang is a retired orthodontist living out the American Dream covering University of Kentucky Sports. He is a columnist for Nolan Group Media and lead writer for Sports View America. If you enjoy his writing, you can follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @KYHuangs.

 

The End of the Line

The End of the Line

(KANSAS CITY, Mo.) – Never mind that the Kentucky Wildcats led the nation in NCAA Tournament appearances. Forget that Kansas City had hosted the most NCAA games in tournament history. The fact the Wildcats had never played a postseason contest in the Heart of America should have signaled a warning that something was terribly amiss. Sure enough, after a 62-58 heart-stopping victory over Houston in the Sweet Sixteen, Kentucky (30-7) fell victim to a familiar SEC foe in the Elite Eight. The Auburn Tigers, behind 26 points from Jared Harper and 24 points from Bryce Brown, upset the Wildcats 77-71 in overtime, effectively ending BBN’s hopes and dreams of another Final Four run.

As the final horn sounded, the tattered remains of another promising season lay strewn across the hardwood of the downtown Sprint Center. Not sure if it was the barbeque burnt ends, the inexperienced guard play, or the free-throw shooting bugaboo, but the blue mist left the Show Me State with a bad feeling in the pit of their stomachs—pondering what went wrong as, yet again, another season of one and done prodigies prepares for future NBA riches.

For Wildcat fans everywhere, the finality of season’s end always feels like a cataclysmic collision of catastrophic proportions. From the Bahamas hype, to Ashton’s emergence, to the Rocky Top massacre at Rupp, we’ve all been treated to a tantalizing season of thrills and chills—heightened by the prospect of a nerve-wracking, blood pressure-spiking postseason run. The perfect storybook ending this year should’ve involved a potential redemption game with Duke, culminating in that elusive Championship Number Nine.

Could’ve, should’ve, would’ve. Instead we have this. Tears flowing freely in the locker room afterwards, once again, as college careers are cut short—ironically not because the players weren’t good enough to survive and advance, but because they were too good to stay another year and make another legitimate run at the championship.

Ten years ago, John Calipari arrived on campus with a brand-new philosophy. “One and Done” they called it. Recruit the very best elite high school players to Kentucky and punch everybody else in the mouth. At first it worked great—Final Fours and National Titles became the standard. But after a decade, other teams have caught on. Duke has passed them by.

To win championships with new players every year is difficult—especially with what some claim is sub elite talent. I’ll take my chances with a Zion Williamson, John Wall, or Anthony Davis, but it’s a different story with a Keldon Johnson or Tyler Herro. Coach Cal acknowledges it as such. “When you’re changing teams like this, it keeps you curious,” he said. “We’re doing things with this team that we’ve never done with any other team because we had to.”

So, the question that BBN needs answered is this: Is this good enough? Are Kentucky fans willing to settle for being “in the hunt” every year, even if it means consistently missing out on Final Fours and Championships? Does the joy of the journey outweigh the disappointment at the end of the rainbow? Does the means justify the end?

I’m not sure. After all, we’re Kentucky—proud owner of the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball. We take a back seat to no one—not Duke, not North Carolina, not Gonzaga, not Virginia. The most passionate fan base in America, they call us. We’re the Big Blue Nation and Kentucky Basketball never stops!

Hmmm? With that being said, I think this IS good enough. Kentucky Basketball is every bit as much about the fans as it is about championships. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll all gladly acknowledge that winning championships is often quite random. I’d rather be lucky than good.

“I don’t look at this as life or death,” said Coach Cal, when I asked him how he handles the pressure of having the collective hopes of the entire Big Blue Nation resting on his shoulders every single year. “Because if you look at this as life or death, you die a lot.”

If you’re someone who dies every year when the season ends, those are indeed wise words.

But someone even wiser than Coach Cal also once said, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” For many of us, Kentucky Basketball is a treasure—often a life saving distraction in the midst of a life full of pain and grief and suffering. When it’s GAMEDAY, we all end up with a smile on our face and a skip in our step. Sure, it’s far better whenever Kentucky wins. But it’s not really the end of the line when they lose. It’s just a temporary respite until next year’s journey. Big Blue Madness can’t come soon enough!

Dr. John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Group Media. If you enjoy his writing, you can read more at www.huangswhinings.com, or follow him on Twitter@KYHuangs.

Maci, Maci, Maci!

Maci, Maci, Maci!

Kentucky’s 72-57 loss to NC State in the 2019 NCAA Tournament Round of 32 signaled the end of another hard-fought basketball campaign. It’s always sad to see the season end. It’s even sadder to see the conclusion of another great college basketball career. Maci Morris will go down in Kentucky Women’s Basketball history as one of the most popular players to ever wear the Blue and White. It was an honor and a privilege to cover her exploits on the court these past few years.

Back in 2017, I wrote my very first feature article for Nolan Group Media. I couldn’t have asked for a better subject. Thanks Maci, for helping me out. And thanks also, from a grateful Big Blue Nation, for all the wonderful memories. Can’t wait to share in all your future successes.

Maci, Maci, Maci! —By Dr. John Huang

(LEXINGTON, Ky.) – Like a vigilant sentinel standing guard over the county line, the roadside highway sign off US 25E in Southeastern Kentucky proudly proclaims “Bell County, Home of Macy Morris, Miss KY Basketball 2015.” Although her name is misspelled, the sentiment remains unmistakable. As a key player for the University of Kentucky Wildcats Women’s Basketball team, the hometown hoops heroine from Pineville carries with her the hopes, the dreams, and the pride of her tight-knit mountain community.

I caught up with Maci shortly after Kentucky’s big road win at Auburn, where she knocked down some huge shots, scored a big game clinching basket, and tallied a career high 9 rebounds. Although we had never met formally, she was gracious enough to speak openly with me about a variety of extended topics. As you might expect, I didn’t encounter the iciness of a cold-blooded 3-point assassin, but rather was overwhelmed by the genuine warmth and affection of someone speaking so fondly from the heart about her family and friends back home.

“Shout outs to all my friends and family and supporters,” Maci said.  “I appreciate you guys more than you know and just thank you for always lifting me up and supporting me throughout my high school and college career. I love everybody back home. Everyone always treated me great.”

The 6’0 All-State guard from Bell County achieved her rise to stardom through both family genetics and a strong individual work ethic. Maci (who was named after UK great Kyle Macy and wears his uniform number 4) explained to me, “I was basically born into basketball. When I was born, my dad was coaching at Hazard, so I was always around the gym. My parents were both athletes. My dad played basketball and baseball and went to college for that. And my mom went to play college basketball as well.” Not only were both her parents star athletes, many other members of her extended family were also heavily into sports. “Both my uncles went to college for baseball and my Papaw and his brother went to college as well for baseball,” Maci added. “My dad’s sister, she went to college for basketball. So, it’s just like a real big athletic family. I have a lot of cousins who went to college for sports as well.”

With athletic ability running rampant in the family, Maci naturally gravitated to sports. As a little girl, she loved being a baseball pitcher. But boys usually played baseball while girls played softball and the thought of pitching underhanded just didn’t appeal to her. Although she ran a little bit of track in high school, everyone knew that basketball would eventually be her calling.

Maci’s high school career was chocked full of accomplishments and accolades. I know—I looked it up and she was great, averaging over 25 points and nearly 8 rebounds while leading her team to a 29-3 record her senior season. “I say all the time how I miss how fun high school ball was,” Maci reminisced. “My best friends were on my basketball team so getting to play with them all the time was great. My senior year was a blast because we went to State and that was the first time a team from Bell County had ever gone to State and won their region. I just really enjoyed it and tried to give it my all my senior year because I knew that coming to college, basketball was going to be a whole different story.”

The awards banquet for her Miss Kentucky Basketball honor provided for a few awkward moments when Coach Joe B. Hall kept referring to her as “Marci” during the presentation ceremonies. When I asked her why in the world she didn’t correct him, Maci gave the perfect answer. “Joe B. Hall is a legend,” she said. “So, I just let him keep going. Everybody thought it was so funny. I had a lot of friends who were there and to this day, they joke around with me and even now call me ‘Marci.’ We all get a big kick out of it.”

When it came time to choose a college, the decision came rather naturally. “When you’re born in Kentucky, you’re basically either a Kentucky or Louisville fan and I was brought up to be a Kentucky fan,” Maci proclaimed proudly. “Coach Mitchell was the main coach who recruited me, so I got to build a relationship with him. I always came up to games because I lived just two and a half hours from here.”

As expected, Maci contributed immediately to the Wildcats in her first college season.  As a freshman, she started all 33 games, averaged eight-and-a-half points per game, and was named to the SEC All-Freshman team. Although success appeared to come easily, there was a lot of hard work behind all the spot-up jumpers and three-point swishes. “I worked hard last year,” she pointed out to me. “My dad told me, ’this is going to be a whole different ballgame. You’re going to get out there and you’re going to have to work as hard as you can. You’ve got to be the hardest worker on the floor.’ I just tried to do that. One of my coaches from last year, he really helped out with that. He would talk to me and just push me to be my best every day.” That hard work paid off as Maci and her teammates experienced the thrill of home crowds as the Wildcats advanced through the Lexington Regional in post-season play.

The speed and pace of the college game is usually the biggest difference for players making the adjustment from high school, and things were no different that first year—even for a talented Miss Kentucky Basketball. “At first it was just like a big difference because I was just so weakly prepared to play on the defensive end” Maci admitted. “The coaches have done a terrific job preparing me and helping me build on my footwork and my speed. Also, our strength and conditioning coach worked with me and the team a lot this summer on our quickness. That’s helped me a lot and having a year underneath me gave me more confidence just being able to know what to expect.”

The diminutive sophomore, who her teammates playfully call “string bean,” also knows that she needs to get stronger. “I have to be more aggressive when I go down low because I’m not as strong as Evelyn (Akhator) and (Makayla) Epps so I have to be more physical and aggressive and play maybe a little bit dirtier,” she jokingly added.

Just like with other normal students, simple adjustments to everyday college life could easily become daunting endeavors for Maci. For student-athletes especially, these adjustments become even more magnified. Class schedules and practice demands frequently turn ordinary daily tasks into creative challenges. “A big thing for me when I was back home was that my mom or my dad always fixed food for me,” Maci expounded. “So here it’s a little different because I live in a dorm. We have a kitchen in our dorm but it’s hard to go out and buy food because of our schedule and to be able to store it in our room. We don’t have a large refrigerator. We just have a mini-fridge. And just eating habits were different and just being able to handle our own time (was difficult).”

Maci claims that becoming better organized is one of her immediate goals. With all her travel to away games, practice schedules, and tutoring sessions, she works hard to better manage her time. She playfully recounted the story of the time she walked all the way across campus to get in her car only to realize that she had forgotten the keys. “Yeah, my cousin came up and we were going to the football game and I have to park my car at like a side street where one of my friends live. So we had to walk all the way and I got over there, and I couldn’t find my keys and I was like ‘Oh my gosh.’ He had already forgotten his jacket, so we had to like go up to our room and like walk all the way back to the car. And once I forgot my keys, we had to walk all the way back to the dorm again, get the keys and get back to my car.”

The summer after her freshman year was fraught with potential turmoil as Maci witnessed half of her former teammates transfer to other schools for a variety of different reasons. Maci and her remaining teammates persevered, strengthening their resolve and commitment to each other in the process. As her sophomore season began, the team got off to an inconsistent start and struggled to develop the confidence and unit cohesion needed for success. After a heartbreaking loss to Arizona State in Rupp Arena, in which she scored a career-high 29 points, Maci appeared on the post-game interview podium with the biggest frowny face you could imagine. When I asked Maci why she was so inconsolable after such a great individual performance, she responded as the consummate team player she is. “I could care less about how much I score,” she said. “As long as my team wins, that’s really all that matters. People were bringing up that I had a great game, but it obviously wasn’t good enough because we lost. Like I said, I’d rather win than score.”

You can obviously tell that being a team player comes naturally to Maci. I’ve noticed how she always speaks so deferentially and respectfully to seniors Epps and Akhator. She and fellow sophomore guard Taylor Murray also have become great friends off the court. Those types of genuine player relationships can’t help but lead to improved team chemistry and future success.

Midway through the conference season, the team seems to have found its groove. When I asked Maci for her thoughts regarding the abrupt turnaround, she said, “I think our loss at Texas A&M just woke us up a little bit. We had to start having fun again. We kind of lost just enjoying the game. After the loss to Texas A&M, we had a talk before practice and we all got together and just told each other we had to play for each other. We have to go out there and give it everything we had and just have fun with it. So, in practice we just worked so hard and just went hard every rep and just put everything there out on the line and it carried over to the next game and then the next game after that, so it just really worked out for us.”

As our session wound down, I decided I’d broach a topic with Maci that other athletes don’t necessarily feel comfortable discussing. Not only was she comfortable discussing her faith, but she appeared more than willing to share her thoughts. “God just gives me this sense of peace,” she said pensively. “I’ve been working on my relationship with Him a lot—especially this year. My New Year’s resolution was to read my Bible every day and to spend time with Him. Already I can see a change within myself–how I treat others and how I look at my day with more positivity. Even when things aren’t going my way, I always look to Him. I trust in Him because I know He’s going to take care of it.” After a momentary pause, she added, “He just always gives me peace.”

If you check out her Twitter page @Maci4Mo, you’ll find Philippians 4:13 as part of the heading. “I can do all things through Christ, who gives me strength.” It’s amazing how someone so young and gifted in her craft could already have developed such a surprisingly mature and joyful spiritual attitude.

As she departed for her tutoring session, I gave Maci a chance to show off another one of her many off the court talents. During a previous post-game interview session, Maci had jokingly hinted to reporters that she was one of the better singers on the team. When I gave her a chance today to demonstrate her vocal prowess, she politely declined. “I’m good,” she said. And that was the end of that.

Instead, she did throw me a final bone by revealing something Big Blue Nation has been dying to know. What goes into the game time decision regarding her hair? How does she determine when to stick with the head band or when to break out those stylish braids? Well it turns out that just like in many other areas of her life, she’s wisely just following her mom’s sage advice. “My mom actually got on to me and that’s why I wore the braids the other day in our last game because she was like ‘you keep fooling with your hair. You need to braid it, so you quit fooling with it in the games. You don’t realize it but that’s all you do is play with your hair.’ So I said ‘OK, I’ll braid it.’”

As I walked back to my car with keys in hand, I realized that there’s not much about Maci Morris for anyone to dislike. She’s a small-town Kentucky athlete pursuing her love of sport at the state university. She’s surrounded by a gaggle of loyal friends and unconditionally supported by her loving family. She’s an exemplary teammate on a team made up of exemplary teammates. Her faith is an example and inspiration to many. She has a fun sense of humor, (a purported) nice singing voice, and great hair. She’s also pretty darn good at basketball. And most importantly, she has nice teeth and a beautiful smile. It doesn’t get much sweeter than that.

Dr. John Huang is a retired orthodontist who covers UK sports for Nolan Group Media. He can be reached at www.huangswhinings.com. Follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.

 

 

 

Final Four or Bust

Final Four or Bust

(JACKSONVILLE, Fl.) – Kentucky’s gilded path to the promised land of Minneapolis got noticeably more difficult this past weekend. After a 79-44 blowout over overmatched Abilene Christian and a 62-56 nail-biter over Wofford in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, the Wildcats now find themselves headed towards Kansas City on a final dash to paydirt.

No one said it would be easy. Besides the usual Calipari to Mars coaching rumors that surface this time of the year, Kentucky fans also had to deal with the unsettling news of PJ Washington’s mysterious foot injury. From walking boot, to hard cast, to scooter assistance, rumors swirled unabated as an anxious fan base awaited final word on their All-American’s playing status. No PJ? No problem—at least in Jacksonville this past weekend. Nothing against Abilene Christian or Wofford, but from here on in, winning without PJ would be nothing short of a pipedream.

For all of BBN, National Championship Number Nine is the ultimate coveted prize. But after all the near misses over the past several seasons, reaching—at the very least—another Final Four will be a critical cog to John Calipari’s coaching legacy. Truth be told, the fan base is getting antsy. Ten straight years of one and done talent with only one title to his name just won’t cut the mustard with the blue-blooded diehards.

Standing in the way this year are Houston and either North Carolina or Auburn—all formidable opponents. None of them will be easy victories, especially if PJ remains sidelined. Granted, Phi Slama Jama, Michael Jordan, and Charles Barkley aren’t walking through that door, but the Cougars (33-3), the Tar Heels (29-6), and the Tigers (28-9) still yield plenty of firepower. Plus, the Wildcats (29-6) have chinks (no pun intended) of their own in their Big Blue armor. The offense still becomes inexplicably stagnant for long stretches at a time. The lack of willing passers this late in the season remains disturbing, to say the least.

Coach Cal has talked all season about the players conquering themselves. “Before you can conquer someone else, you’ve got to conquer yourself,” he reminded the media this weekend. “It means conditioning, a lot of it means pushing through comfort. A lot of it means don’t drink that poison when you’re flattered.”

Reid Travis added to the conquering yourself narrative with an explanation worthy of a Ph.D. dissertation. “Just understanding that it’s that little thing inside of you that’s telling you to stop, that you can’t do it, that you’re not good enough,” said the scholarly Stanford grad transfer. “If you can conquer that, then you can conquer fans…a bad play here, a bad play there…that’s the biggest thing I think (Coach Cal’s) preached all year to our team. It’s not about any other team and what they’re doing. It’s about us playing good basketball. We’ll be just fine. It’s the same thing on the individual level. If you’re confident in yourself and you’re preaching good thoughts to yourself, then things will work themselves out. It starts in the tournament.”

Freshman guard Tyler Herro was a little less revealing. When asked his thoughts on what Coach Cal meant by conquering yourself, he replied hesitantly, “I don’t know.”

And such is the life of a college basketball coach such as John Calipari. Much of what you preach to players often falls on deaf ears. After all, they’re not machines or robots or computers or whatever. No matter how much you show and tell, they’re just a bunch of 18 and 19-year-olds with video games to play and big dreams to fulfill. When it comes right down to it, making it to Minneapolis is a bit of a crapshoot. A bad bounce here, a sprained foot there, a blown call or two and you’ll quickly be watching Alaska shows on cable TV.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t have high expectations every year—especially if you’re the head coach of greatest tradition in the history of college basketball. Settling for mediocrity is a sure path to failure. Eight out of ten Sweet Sixteens, you say? I say not good enough! Final Fours are what matter and four straight years without one is a travesty in the eyes of many. Sure, we’ve been spoiled, but that’s what makes BBN unique. It’s how we roll.

So, for the Wildcats to be successful this weekend in Kansas City, they’ll have to conquer themselves. The opponent is immaterial. It doesn’t matter whether PJ plays or not. Forget about the crowd, or the refs, or the bright lights of the TV cameras. Put thoughts of your future NBA riches on hold for just a second and bask in your one shining moment on the biggest stage of your college basketball careers. Just focus on falling back on your skills, talent, and training—what you’ve worked for your entire life. Listen to your coach.

“He’s a wise man,” Reid reminded me.

Yes he is. For this particular championship run, John Calipari wants and needs it as much as anybody. He needs to conquer himself. Kansas City here we come. It’s Final Four or bust!

Dr. John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Group Media. If you enjoy his writing, you can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.

Bracketology Bias

Bracketology Bias

(LEXINGTON, Ky.) — Immediately after Kentucky’s disappointing 82-78 loss to Tennessee in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament, sophomore forward PJ Washington reassured all of BBN that he saw no reason to worry. “We play next weekend, so we’re fine,” he said confidently. “We knew it was a hard-fought game (against Tennessee). Both teams fought really well. Down the stretch we made some mistakes. They capitalized on us. We play next weekend, we’re going to get it right.”

I’m not sure the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee ever gets it right. After all, when dealing with bracketology, it’s obvious we’re not talking about real science. Sure, there’s the NET, the team value index, the adjusted winning percentage, the SOS, the BPI, all the quadrant breakdowns, the KenPom and the Sagarin rankings. But in the end, it’s all just hocus-pocus—a feeble attempt to infuse objectivity into a process fraught with individual bias. Images of secret handshakes by cigar-chomping administrators in a smoky, dimly lit room still abound in the inquiring minds of basketball fans everywhere. How else could you possibly explain three ACC teams and Gonzaga ending up as the #1 seeds?

Virginia and Gonzaga both lose in their tournaments and it has no effect on seeding. North Carolina loses and the Tar Heels actually move up. ARE YOU KIDDING ME? Meanwhile, losses by Kentucky and Tennessee in the SEC Tournament drop both to a #2 seed. Riddle me this: Why is it that when SEC teams beat up on each other, they get penalized for their losses? When ACC teams lose to each other, it’s like a rising tide lifting all boats. I’m telling you, it’s selection member bias. It’s a skewed perception of how good a team is based on your own preferences and experiences. It’s a highly subjective eye-test viewed—in this case of ACC favoritism—through the distorted prism of East Coast elitism.

The committee tells us that Duke’s mediocrity during Zion Williamson’s injury didn’t count against them, yet North Carolina got credit for beating Duke twice during that same time period that Zion was missing in action. You can’t have it both ways. The Tar Heels—who Kentucky beat in head to head competition—end up with a #1 seed. I guess it doesn’t really matter in the long run since the committee threw Kentucky into the same region as Carolina’s number two.

The folly of the seeding process is further exposed in the geographical jockeying of teams within regions. Kentucky Coach John Calipari had it right when he said, “Just do the S-curve, it’s easy.” Having the top #1 seed play the worst #2 seed and so on down the line not only makes a lot of sense, but takes the prejudice, partiality, and partisanship directly out of the challenges of placing teams within their natural regions. Slotting teams in regions close to home is inherently unfair anyway. Why does Kansas always get to play in Kansas City? I agree with Coach Cal. Just put everyone on the S-curve and let the chips fall where they may. “Everybody charters,” Calipari reminded everyone. “Doesn’t matter where you’re playing.”

Next weekend—Thursday and Saturday to be exact—the #2-seeded Wildcats will be playing in Jacksonville, Florida, taking on 15th-seeded Abilene Christian in the first round of the Midwest Regional bracket. Win that one and the winner of 7th-seeded Wofford versus 10th-seeded Seton Hall awaits in the round of 32. Should Kentucky survive and advance, the NCAA selection committee has once again done them no favors. A ticket to Kansas City for a potential matchup against #3-seeded Houston in the Sweet Sixteen before a much-anticipated Elite Eight rematch versus the top-seeded Tar Heels promises to be no walk in the park. Jacksonville and Kansas City? What happened to Columbus and Louisville? So much for geographical preference.

“There was a chance I thought we would play in Louisville,” said Coach Cal immediately after the brackets were released. “It wasn’t slim…but it was nil. Not happening. But that’s fine.”

Instead, Tennessee gets the #2 seed in the South Region with a chance to play in Louisville. In essence, they stole Kentucky’s dream slot. Up by eight with less than three minutes to play, the Wildcats let a golden opportunity slip agonizingly away. You can’t blame the selection committee for that one.

For this Kentucky team, the road to recovery begins this Thursday. As PJ Washington said—it’s time to make things right. See you in Jacksonville.

Dr. John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Group Media. If you enjoy his writing, you can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.