Malik! Malik! Malik! Malik! Malik!
For anyone growing up in the 70’s and 80’s, Kentucky’s biggest rival on the basketball court wasn’t Duke or Indiana or Kansas or Louisville. It was without question, the hated University of North Carolina Tar Heels. For a couple of those decades, UK and UNC jockeyed back and forth for the distinction of being the winningest program in the history of college basketball. Fans of the two schools were often envious of the other, always looking to outduel each other in the quest for hoops supremacy. The mere sound of Dean Smith’s nasal twang emanating between puffs of his elitist cigarette smoke would be enough to send the bile rising from the gut of any True Blue fan. When the architect of the evil 4-corners offense broke Adolph Rupp’s victory record, the seeds of permanent vitriol and contempt between the two schools were sown in my mind.
Since UK and Kansas have both overtaken the Tar Heels in total victories, the titanic rivalry has taken a bit of a back seat in recent years. The two heavyweight programs don’t play each other all that often either, making this CBS Sports Classic encounter all the more intriguing. Once again, it’ll be powder blue versus big blue, the Carolina Way versus Calipari’s way, the Dean Dome versus Cawood’s Court, good academics versus bogus academics. I’ll let you decide for yourself which is which on that last one as Carolina’s once proud academic standing collapses into the rubble of an ongoing academic fraud investigation.
One thing that is for certain is that BBN has arrived in force for this encounter. The blue mist isn’t quite as encompassing as for the SEC tournament in New Orleans or Nashville, but for a 2,000 mile trek a week before Christmas, the turnout remains quite impressive. UK fans were spotted throughout the week enjoying the sights and sounds of the Vegas Strip as Kentuckians proudly decked out in Wildcat gear easily outnumbered all the other team’s fans combined. It wasn’t uncommon to hear a “Go Cats,” “Go Big Blue,” or “C-A-T-S” chant spontaneously erupt between yanks of the ubiquitous casino slots. T-Mobile Arena was similarly energized, worthy of any tournament venue on the Road to the Final Four with over 19,000 enthusiastic fans in attendance.
It’s also quite fitting that this basketball game was played amidst the glitz and glamor of the Las Vegas Strip—the site of many of boxing’s championship bouts. The two elite hardwood programs went toe to toe throughout the afternoon, scoring with lightning quick jabs and thunderous uppercuts, always looking to land the final knockout blow. After 15 rounds, only one fighter remained standing. The Wildcats, led by Malik Monk’s freshman record setting career high of 47 points, had just barely enough to finish off the #7 ranked Tar Heels 103-100 in a highly entertaining, fast-paced game for the ages. The win injects a huge surge into the Wildcat’s confidence as well as to their hopes of a top tournament seed come March. The question remains now of whether Coach Cal can continue to tweak his young troops in preparation for another prime time run through the Big Dance.
It’s just one win, but triumphs are always sweeter when they come against the dreaded Tar Heels. With the win, Carolina’s lead in the series is now trimmed to 23-15. The Tar Heels are the only school that has beaten Kentucky at least 10 times and has a winning record against the Wildcats. It’s an ugly stain against the backdrop of our proud and unmatched heritage that needs to be erased. But the recent trend is definitely in UK’s favor. With DeAndre Liggins’ 3-point dagger, Anthony Davis’ game saving block, and now Malik Monk’s legendary performance, big MO is on our side. And most importantly–let’s not forget–Kentucky still remains 32 wins up in the all-time victory column.
Unfortunately, even with this latest win, a huge amount of pressure still remains for UK’s upcoming game with Louisville in the YUM Center. Remember the Cats play in the SEC—a league with few opportunities to pad your tournament resume with quality wins. With the home court loss to UCLA, regular season victories against Louisville and Kansas become imperative in the quest for a #1 seed. Questions still abound about whether this team can shoot accurately, rebound consistently, and play just enough defense to outscore their opponent. What happens when Malik doesn’t score 47 and the last shot doesn’t fall? The short turnaround time this week between games surely doesn’t help matters. Neither does it being the first true road test for a young team. Perhaps I worry too much, because remember—in the end, Cal owns Rick. There’s nothing that’ll surpass a victory over powder blue than another beat down of cardinal red. And of course, if all else fails, there’s always Malik!
This blog posting was originally submitted as a UK Basketball Column for Nolan Group Media publications.