(LEXINGTON, Ky.) – It’s no secret. Every time a visiting blue-blooded basketball program rolls into town, a normally lifeless Rupp Arena leaps abruptly out of its winter hibernation. The usually docile, blue-haired, church service crowd suddenly morphs into Godzilla—swallowing the opposition up in tidal wave of decibel defying noise and pandemonium. Kansas never had a chance on Saturday, as the 8th-ranked Kentucky Wildcats—behind their army of Big Blue Faithful—subdued the visiting 9th-ranked Jayhawks 71-63 in a game critical towards confidence building, tournament seeding, and bragging rights.
Led by PJ Washington’s 20-point, 13-rebound effort, the Wildcats (16-3) rocked, chalked, and Jayhawked their way to their biggest victory of the year. Reid Travis kept the Cats in it early, doing all his damage down low to the tune of 18 points and 12 rebounds. Down 33-30 at the half, Kentucky’s dominating 2nd half comeback left the GameDay crew with jaws agape and put the rest of the basketball world on notice. The victory breaks a three-game losing streak to Kansas (16-4) and sets Kentucky back squarely into the conversation for a top NCAA tournament seed.
If confession is good for the soul, then I confess—I was wrong! At the beginning of this month, I thought this basketball team was finished, stuck in an endless cycle of sub-elite one and done talent incapable of competing with the Dukes, the Virginias, and the Tennessees of the world for a national crown. I hadn’t completely given up, but Mr. Negative was close to making other plans for the upcoming Ides of March. Shame on me!
I figured that in this always-evolving, current-day atmosphere of college basketball, championships are normally still won in March. That’s when the lights usually come on, the adrenaline surges, and teams that are fortuitously peaking at the right time dance their way to a coveted Final Four. Not this team, I surmised. Not even Coach Cal could work his magic on this entitled ragtag group interested solely in NBA stardom.
Just two short weeks ago, coming off a disappointing road loss and a couple of ho-hum victories over less than stellar competition at home, fans were ready to panic. Slow starts, poor shot selection, and inconsistent play plagued a team many expected to be better—much better.
A questioner from the peanut gallery (hehe) even asked Coach John Calipari if he were shifting into desperation mode. “What’s the date?” Coach Cal answered back incredulously. “Is it still in January? We’re good. We’re fine.”
Boy, was it fine. A surprisingly easy blowout victory over Georgia in Athens turned the tide of negativity. An ensuing resume-building road win over a ranked Auburn team got the bandwagon rolling again. A solid 21-point victory at home over a ranked Mississippi State team filled that bandwagon to capacity. And finally, a convincing GameDay victory over the perennially tough Kansas Jayhawks set everyone’s dream back squarely on a collision course for a rematch with the Duke Blue Devils.
What really happened during that two-week span? Young Calipari-coached teams don’t just all of a sudden flip the switch and start playing well. Remember, it’s a process. Where was that group of unempowered misfits who couldn’t shoot, who didn’t play defense, and who lost to Seton Hall?
Well, two things happened. First of all, the team was actually further along than many had originally thought. “The clock for our guys is sped up a little bit here,” said assistant coach Tony Barbee prior to the Mississippi State game. “Their learning curves have got to be faster…this team is starting to get it through the maturity, through the experience, through the different types of games and styles they’ve seen now.”
The second thing that happened was Ashton Hagans. The freshman point guard has become a recent tour-de-force—playing suffocating defense, making steals, driving to the hoop and leading the team like a seasoned floor general. “I don’t want to grade myself,” he said when I asked him for an honest self-evaluation. “I’ll let you all do that. I would say that I’m playing good. I just want to keep that going for my teammates. Try to play the role my coach has given me. Try to will my team to the win.”
I don’t know where this Kentucky Basketball team will end up in March. I do know that with their meteoric rise up the national rankings these past two weeks, many are now picking them to make it all the way to Minneapolis. If they do arrive in the promised land, you can point to the month of January as the point the Red Sea parted.
Ultimately, we’ll have to let history be the judge. A difficult road still lies ahead—a minefield of talented opposing teams, mean-spirited rival fans, and torturous enemy venues. One unfortunate slip up, and fickle Big Blue fans may once again threaten to bail. Not me. I’ve learned my lesson. I was wrong once before. I don’t plan on being wrong again. See you in March!
Check out his most recent UK Sports coverage at http://www.themanchesterenterprise.com/category/uk-live-breathe-blue/
Check out his most recent Cincinnati Bengals and other professional sports coverage at http://www.bluegrasssportsnation.com/category/writers/john-huang