(KANSAS CITY, Mo.) – Never mind that the Kentucky Wildcats led the nation in NCAA Tournament appearances. Forget that Kansas City had hosted the most NCAA games in tournament history. The fact the Wildcats had never played a postseason contest in the Heart of America should have signaled a warning that something was terribly amiss. Sure enough, after a 62-58 heart-stopping victory over Houston in the Sweet Sixteen, Kentucky (30-7) fell victim to a familiar SEC foe in the Elite Eight. The Auburn Tigers, behind 26 points from Jared Harper and 24 points from Bryce Brown, upset the Wildcats 77-71 in overtime, effectively ending BBN’s hopes and dreams of another Final Four run.
As the final horn sounded, the tattered remains of another promising season lay strewn across the hardwood of the downtown Sprint Center. Not sure if it was the barbeque burnt ends, the inexperienced guard play, or the free-throw shooting bugaboo, but the blue mist left the Show Me State with a bad feeling in the pit of their stomachs—pondering what went wrong as, yet again, another season of one and done prodigies prepares for future NBA riches.
For Wildcat fans everywhere, the finality of season’s end always feels like a cataclysmic collision of catastrophic proportions. From the Bahamas hype, to Ashton’s emergence, to the Rocky Top massacre at Rupp, we’ve all been treated to a tantalizing season of thrills and chills—heightened by the prospect of a nerve-wracking, blood pressure-spiking postseason run. The perfect storybook ending this year should’ve involved a potential redemption game with Duke, culminating in that elusive Championship Number Nine.
Could’ve, should’ve, would’ve. Instead we have this. Tears flowing freely in the locker room afterwards, once again, as college careers are cut short—ironically not because the players weren’t good enough to survive and advance, but because they were too good to stay another year and make another legitimate run at the championship.
Ten years ago, John Calipari arrived on campus with a brand-new philosophy. “One and Done” they called it. Recruit the very best elite high school players to Kentucky and punch everybody else in the mouth. At first it worked great—Final Fours and National Titles became the standard. But after a decade, other teams have caught on. Duke has passed them by.
To win championships with new players every year is difficult—especially with what some claim is sub elite talent. I’ll take my chances with a Zion Williamson, John Wall, or Anthony Davis, but it’s a different story with a Keldon Johnson or Tyler Herro. Coach Cal acknowledges it as such. “When you’re changing teams like this, it keeps you curious,” he said. “We’re doing things with this team that we’ve never done with any other team because we had to.”
So, the question that BBN needs answered is this: Is this good enough? Are Kentucky fans willing to settle for being “in the hunt” every year, even if it means consistently missing out on Final Fours and Championships? Does the joy of the journey outweigh the disappointment at the end of the rainbow? Does the means justify the end?
I’m not sure. After all, we’re Kentucky—proud owner of the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball. We take a back seat to no one—not Duke, not North Carolina, not Gonzaga, not Virginia. The most passionate fan base in America, they call us. We’re the Big Blue Nation and Kentucky Basketball never stops!
Hmmm? With that being said, I think this IS good enough. Kentucky Basketball is every bit as much about the fans as it is about championships. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll all gladly acknowledge that winning championships is often quite random. I’d rather be lucky than good.
“I don’t look at this as life or death,” said Coach Cal, when I asked him how he handles the pressure of having the collective hopes of the entire Big Blue Nation resting on his shoulders every single year. “Because if you look at this as life or death, you die a lot.”
If you’re someone who dies every year when the season ends, those are indeed wise words.
But someone even wiser than Coach Cal also once said, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” For many of us, Kentucky Basketball is a treasure—often a life saving distraction in the midst of a life full of pain and grief and suffering. When it’s GAMEDAY, we all end up with a smile on our face and a skip in our step. Sure, it’s far better whenever Kentucky wins. But it’s not really the end of the line when they lose. It’s just a temporary respite until next year’s journey. Big Blue Madness can’t come soon enough!
Dr. John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Group Media. If you enjoy his writing, you can read more at www.huangswhinings.com, or follow him on Twitter@KYHuangs.