For any True-Blue Wildcat basketball fan, a trip to the SEC basketball tournament has become an annual rite of passage. This yearly trek down to Nashville always provides a brazen opportunity to show your unwavering support for the team—a chance to take out a second mortgage, stash the family in the back of the minivan, board your pet, and spend the next four days in a big blue stupor cheering the Cats on to another championship trophy.
The first day and a half of the tournament consists entirely of SEC cellar dwellers and also-rans. The six games in the first two rounds are usually played in front of a sparse faceless crowd composed mainly of friends and family members of the participating teams hoping for a merciful end to the season. This year there seem to be a few more random fans in the stands. For wide-eyed, die-hards like me who arrived early, it’s like a fledgling warm up act before the main event, with the muted conversations and occasional cheers like hollow echoes bouncing off the cavernous walls of a half-empty Bridgestone Arena.
This year’s opening night preliminaries featured a swan song for Johnny Jones of LSU and a near swan song for Kim Anderson of Missouri until a dramatic overtime buzzer beater provided him a last-minute reprieve. His Cinderella run lasted one more round until the fat lady finally sang against Ole Miss. These early preludes provided the perfect acclimatization process for the big blue mist gradually blowing into town, totally engulfing the streets of downtown Nashville prior to UK’s tip-off on Friday. The beautiful weather early on and festive activities amidst the honky-tonks on Broadway only served to enhance a totally epic Nashville experience.
Of course the goal every year is to win it all, but I always felt that in order to make the entire trip worthwhile, the Cats needed to–at the very minimum–advance to the final game. Prior to this year, in John Calipari’s eight seasons as UK’s head coach, Kentucky has made it to that final game in all except that forgettable NIT year. For those who have forgotten, Vanderbilt knocked out an undermanned UK team that season in the very first round. I was so disgusted, I left before the final horn sounded and was back in Lexington even before all the post-game festivities had ended. An early Wildcat loss also left the many Music City merchants somewhat destitute, as the hordes of disappointed UK fans and all their discretionary dollars suddenly evaporated out of town.
Fortunately, that doomsday scenario was not repeated this year as Kentucky shook off their slow starts and took to the floor like a team peaking at just the right time. Even with the early noon tip-off, Friday’s 71-60 quarterfinal victory over Georgia did not disappoint as the Wildcats turned in one of their strongest defensive efforts of the year, holding the Bulldogs to 33% shooting from the field. It didn’t hurt that a frenzied Wildcat nation predictably inundated the arena with their “Go Big Blue” chants. There’s simply no comparison to the grand spectacle of Kentucky fans showing their love at the annual reunion celebration disguised as the conference tournament. I had to pinch myself a couple of times as I took in all the pageantry from my courtside perch directly behind the likes of Dickie V.
On Saturday, as unexpectedly as the freshly fallen snow outside, Kentucky reverted again to a lethargic launch out of the gate by falling behind early by ten points before rallying back to defeat a very physical and energized Alabama squad 79-74. Led by De’Aaron Fox’s career-high 28 points, the Cats survived an aggressive and gutty Crimson Tide effort in the “grind-it-out” contest. Meanwhile, the Arkansas Razorbacks quietly emerged out of the other side of the bracket, setting the dramatic stage for another high-stakes duel on Sunday.
Coaches John Calipari and Mike Anderson don’t have the most cordial of professional relationships, so the 82-65 win over his conference rival had to be extra gratifying for the Kentucky head coach. “I got really good players who are really good kids who are willing to share,” he said. “They say there are other teams more talented, I’ll take mine.” Bam Adebayo and Malik Monk led the Cats in scoring with 17 points apiece, but it was the spirited play of Dominique Hawkins in the first half that propelled UK to a 42-30 halftime lead and made all of us “Kentucky Proud.” Dom was named to the All-Tournament Team together with Bam and Tournament MVP De’Aaron Fox. With smiles all around, the Wildcats returned to Lexington once again as champions of a conference they have dominated for decades.
I also left Nashville for the drive back home a happy man. Any time Kentucky wins, it’s always a great experience in my mind. Despite a flooded hotel room, some bad tournament food, and five days of sleep deprivation, Wildcat victories are a soothing salve for whatever else ails you. I’ve said many times before that the mood and outlook of BBN depends entirely on the fortunes of our beloved basketball team–especially in March. They call it March Madness this time of the year for a reason. It’s time to put the finishing touches on the Calipari reboot and to fine tune all the subtle tweaks. As much as these SEC tournaments are fun for the fans, the real hunt for happiness begins now.
This blog posting was originally submitted as a UK Basketball Column for Nolan Group Media publications.