My first memories of basketball other than UK were of the mighty Bruins of UCLA. As an inquisitive 8-year-old, I remember my dad introducing me to the likes of Lew Alcindor, Sidney Wicks, Curtis Rowe, the Wizard of Westwood and their slew of championship banners hanging from the rafters in their fabled Pauley Pavilion. Imagine my excitement last year when I was finally able to complete a long-awaited pilgrimage to the storied west coast venue to watch my #1 ranked Wildcats take on the homestanding Bruins. There was only one problem. The Cats never really showed up. Due to some anemic outside shooting, Marcus Lee’s mystery concussion and forgettable performances from Skal Labissiere and Alex Poythress, UCLA put an 87-77 whoopin’ on the Wildcats. The game wasn’t as close as the final score indicated as UK’s interior weaknesses were fully exposed from the get go. The lopsided contest represented a microcosm of the struggles of the entire season and a harbinger of difficulties to come.
Not only did the Wildcats not show up but neither did the LA crowd. Jessica Alba, Steve Urkel and Shaq were in the front row but I sat in a half empty upper arena with mostly other displaced Big Blue fans. C’mon now, Kentucky was the top ranked team in the country and UCLA couldn’t even come close to filling their home arena. It was sad to experience first-hand how such a once proud and storied program had fallen so far from their pinnacle glory years. I left the arena somewhat disillusioned—not only at UK’s performance, but also at the general apathy of the Bruin fanbase. John Wooden would not have been pleased.
Fast forward one year and you would think it would be payback time. UK fans were packed to the rafters for UCLA’s first ever appearance on the hallowed hardwood of Rupp Arena. Bruin fans evidently don’t appreciate their own history and tradition as much as Cat fans do. No chance for no shows on this occasion as over 24,000 appeared in force, together with a national television audience and a plethora of NBA scouts to watch UCLA outgun Kentucky 97-92. The Bruins arrived in time for the 9:30 am pacific time tipoff but it was the Wildcats who were still asleep.
Fans were treated to a highly entertaining fast paced game—a virtual 40-minute high speed composite of full court running, gunning and funning. Both teams looked to score in transition, relegating the shot clock to a mere afterthought. UCLA hung 49 points on a supposedly stout defensive team as they took a surprising four-point lead over UK into the half. The hot shooting continued in the second stanza as the Bruins shot 53% from the field and 43% from the 3-point line for the game. The Cats appeared lost defensively throughout the entire contest as Steve Alford’s team pretty much got any shot they wanted–as if playing against a rag tag team of intramural 9th graders.
Blue hued expectations were already sky high after the 115-69 shellacking of Arizona State in the Bahamas earlier in the week. Some analysts claimed it was the most impressive early season showing they had ever witnessed. This latest setback today, although against a quality opponent, sends another realistic reminder to hit the brakes. Kentucky’s defense needs work, outside shooting is a bugaboo, rebounding is a concern, there’s still a lack of a dominant post presence, our bench isn’t as strong as we thought, we’re young and not quite the basketball geniuses Cal led us to believe they were. Bam needs to learn how to hit one-footers, Briscoe needs to avoid stepping on the baseline and UK players need to watch their body language when the calls go against them. An early season loss won’t kill you, but it sure hurts. It not only hurts emotionally but seeding wise for the real season in March.
Hats off to the Bruins. Coach Wooden would be pleased.
This blog posting was originally submitted as a UK Basketball Column for Nolan Group Media publications.