“Let’s play two!” I know Ernie Banks was referring to his beloved sport of baseball when he uttered the famous phrase, but who says we can’t apply it also to our Basketball Cats. I’m putting in overtime this week and taking all of you on a Wednesday-before-Thanksgiving doubleheader extravaganza. The UK Men’s Basketball team will take on Cleveland State in an early afternoon tip and the UK Hoops Women’s team will follow-up with their contest against Morehead State later that evening. Let’s go courtside and dissect the action.
Ever since Title IX, the chasm between men’s and women’s intercollegiate athletics has narrowed significantly. However, the practical differences in a major sport such as college basketball remain markedly evident. For the average fan, just walking into the two iconic venues supporting the two UK teams makes these differences crystal clear. Let’s compare and contrast.
Over 22,000 packed Rupp Arena during the middle of a work day for the 1:00 pm start to the men’s game. Courtside seats were lined with bigwigs and rich boosters. The eRUPPtion zone was buzzing together with the “real” fans banished to the upper deck bleachers. The SEC Network broadcast the game nationwide. I sat among the distinguished long-time, gray bearded reporters forever looking to outdo each other with their voluminous knowledge about the sport that so many Kentuckians have worshipped since birth.
Later that evening in prime-time, Memorial Coliseum was home to about 4,700 fans—mostly families and couples looking for wholesome entertainment and a cheap date. Anyone could sit close to the court, regardless of income or social status. Coverage was provided by internet streaming and the occasional videotape by a local TV station. I looked around the reporter pool and sadly realized that I was the only gray bearded scribe. Unfortunately, I had no voluminous knowledge to dispense to the fuzzy cheeked interns around me.
The most obvious difference in the on-court action in the men’s and women’s games is the disparity in athleticism. The men’s game is played primarily above the rim with high flying Fox jams, Bam slams, and Monk dunks stuffing the scoresheets. The women play with a bit more finesse, relying much more on the basic fundamentals of a Murray dribble, an Epps pass, and a Morris 3-pointer.
The contrast in head coaches is also startling. John Calipari struts along the sidelines like the king of his castle, shouting instructions to his players and constantly keeping the refs on their toes. He’s in complete control, comfortable in his multiple roles as basketball coach, circus promoter, and distinguished diplomat of an adoring nation. He is indeed the master of his domain. During his press conferences, he answers questions on his own terms, spinning the media like a carnival tilt-a-whirl.
Coach Matthew Mitchell is more like your favorite uncle or a friendly next-door-neighbor. You’d feel comfortable borrowing his lawnmower. He’ll still throw the occasional tantrum on the court but is always composed and thoughtful answering your questions courteously and directly. Plus, the guy sure can sing and dance.
The one indisputable similarity on this particular day was that both teams dismantled their opposition. The UK men easily took down the Vikings 101-70 while the UK women outlasted the Eagles 74-47. The men had five players in double figures led by the two-headed monster of Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox with 23 and 16 points respectively. Wenyen Gabriel added 10 points, 10 rebounds, and 6 assists—and is quickly becoming a crowd favorite with his “high motor” energy. The men are now 5-0 to start the season and should hold on to their #1 ranking until they lose. For the #20th ranked women, the guard combo of Makayla Epps and Taylor Murray poured in 18 points apiece to lead the team to their current 4-1 record. Evelyn Akhator just missed out on her 6th consecutive double-double with 11 points and 9 rebounds.
De’Aaron Fox summed up this doubleheader day perfectly when he was asked what he was thankful for in this season of thanksgiving. “I’m thankful for God and for this position that he’s put me in. I’m thankful for my teammates, my coaches, and my family. I can’t really ask for much else.”
Me neither. I’m thankful for De‘Aaron, all the other players on the UK men’s and women’s basketball team, and the opportunity to share and report on all their on-court experiences this year. It’s shaping up to be quite an exciting season. Here’s hoping that everyone has a happy and blessed Thanksgiving holiday.
This blog posting was originally submitted as a UK Basketball Column for Nolan Group Media publications.