In 2017, a Tuesday night in January usually means another SEC road trip for the Basketball Wildcats. I’m tagging along as usual, negotiating the perils of Jellico Mountain to bring you all the action from Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, as the Cats take on the Tennessee Volunteers. Less than 12 months ago in this same building, UK pulled a Jekyll and Hyde–jumping out to a 21-point first-half lead and then watching helplessly—as their Big Orange rivals staged a comeback for the ages. My hopes are for a different outcome this time around but all Cat fans know that a date with the Vols is frequently wrought with uncharacteristic surprises.
Thompson-Boling Arena sits like a massive octagonal mausoleum overlooking the Tennessee River. Built in 1987, and named for the late business magnate B. Ray Thompson and former UT President Dr. Edward J. Boling, the impressive venue initially seated over 24,000 patrons. UK fans insist to this day that the last couple of thousand seats were added solely because of Rupp Arena envy. Unfortunately for UT, bigger wasn’t necessarily better, as the fans never showed up for Men’s Basketball. If not for the success of Pat Summitt and her Lady Vols, Thompson-Boling would have become the whitest of elephants within its first few years of existence.
Objectively speaking, it’s really not a bad place to watch a SEC basketball game (Although one could argue this year that there are no good SEC basketball games being played anywhere). The sight lines are clear and chair back seating extends up through the nose bleed sections. The luxury suites are located well above the game action, allowing the orange haired big donors to drown their football sorrows out of ear shot of the raucous fans below. The court-side student section seats include party couches, further generating a frenzied fraternity type atmosphere within the basketball venue itself. The set-up for media is sweet—a nice barbecue buffet, fact sheets at your fingertips, and a fantastic viewing position courtside.
The venue becomes even more enjoyable whenever Kentucky plays well enough to win. Remember Jodie Meeks and his record setting 54-point performance? That was here. On this particular evening, however, there was no Jodie Meeks and unfortunately no win either. Tennessee limited the Wildcats to two fast break points in the first half and took advantage of a poor UK defensive effort to pull out an 82-80 win.
Behind Bam Adebayo’s 21 points and Isaiah Briscoe’s career-high 14 rebounds, the Wildcats almost overcame an improbable double digit second half deficit. Trailing by two points with 3 minutes left in the game, Kentucky just couldn’t come up with the crucial defensive stops it needed, sending most of the 19,349 fans (not a sell-out, mind you) into a state of pandemonium. You knew there would be nights like this on the road— a young team, shots not falling, hostile crowd, Rocky Top blaring, and Bernard King in the house. Hopefully there’s a lesson to be learned somewhere in all that adversity.
In his post-game press conference, Coach John Calipari seemed exasperated, hinting that the team just isn’t getting it. “You do what’s right for the team, not necessarily what’s right for you as an individual player,” he said. “I am not getting through to some guys. I told them after, they will continue to lose. I have done this 30 years. You cannot do this stuff that they are doing and win basketball games.”
I left Thompson-Boling for the middle of the night drive back to Lexington with a burdened heart. One laid egg shouldn’t stink up your whole season, but there’s something still horribly missing from this Wildcat team. Maybe it’s defensive intensity, maybe it’s perimeter shooting, maybe it’s leadership–maybe it’s not doing what the coach tells them to do– Kentucky should be better than this. They have all the parts necessary for a championship run. They’re just not meshing together quite yet in the Calipari symphony we have come to expect.
Cal’s “buzzwords” for the team this year have been “trust, discipline, and empowerment.” When I asked him a couple of games earlier if any of these areas are cause for ultimate concern, he shook his head adamantly. If he wasn’t worried then, he certainly has to be after this lackluster performance tonight. We’re almost half way through the conference schedule. It’s definitely not November anymore and some difficult games are yet to come. With every loss, a chance at a #1 tournament seed is slipping away. I’m not panicking yet and neither should you. Let’s all see what happens in the next couple of weeks.
This blog posting was originally submitted as a UK Basketball Column for Nolan Group Media publications.