There’s Something About Macy

There’s Something About Macy

(LEXINGTON, Ky.) – Last week, former UK basketball All-American Kyle Macy caused quite a stir. The star point guard for the 1978 NCAA national title squad appeared on an Indiana radio show and proclaimed how he now feels “unwelcome” at Wildcat practices. Macy subsequently stepped his comments back a bit by saying he should have used the word “uncomfortable” rather than “unwelcome.” Regardless—the inference was made that Coach John Calipari’s current regime is somehow putting old-timers like Macy out to pasture in lieu of the recent one and done prodigies of his own creation.

OUCH! Nothing hurts the BBN more than a Cat-on-Cat war of words between hoops icons. To make matters worse, many loyal fans subsequently took sides in the festering battle, with the vocal majority appearing to favor Coach Cal. “Macy had a good run,” they said, “But through the passage of time, people gravitate to the stars of today. That’s just the way the world works nowadays. You’re ancient history. Get over it Kyle!”

The last thing Kyle Macy would want is for a goober like me to make a mountain out of a molehill. But as a lifelong worshipper of the Kentucky Basketball program, I just can’t help myself. Our honor has been insulted.

I don’t agree with the notion that the glory of former star UK players fades with time. In fact, I believe it’s just the opposite. Kyle Macy is a Kentucky basketball legend—and a legitimate legend’s legacy continues to grow rather than shrink as the years go by. I can say that’s true for every one of the all-time greats such as Dan Issel, Jack Givens, Kenny Walker, Jamal Mashburn, etc. Heck, in my humble opinion, even the not-so-all-time greats deserve reverent awe and respect—solely because they wore the hallowed blue and white. I’ll put both Chuck Aleksinas and Chuck Verderber on my big blue pedestal any day of the week. If Chuck Hayes walks through that door right now, I’ll kneel down and wash his feet.

You want more legends? How about Bowie and Turpin, Hurt and Hord, Minniefield and Beal? Has anyone  forgotten The Unforgettables, Pitino’s Bombinos, or that 1996 juggernaut? I doubt it. They’re all fresh in our minds and more reverent with each passing decade. I don’t want to come across sounding like an old man, but fans just seemed more connected to the players and the teams back in the day.

Back in the day in 1969, every ten-year-old boy growing up in Kentucky–myself included—wanted to either be an astronaut or a UK basketball star. We all dreamed of shooting for the moon or shooting jumpers from the corner ala Larry Steele. There was no doubt in our minds that Issel, Pratt, and Casey would surely lead us to another coveted championship. We memorized everyone’s stats, painted their jersey numbers on our T-shirts, and patterned our ball-handling skills after theirs. I even tried to shoot left handed simply because Tom Parker was left handed. How many games did we play on our nerf goals, pounding Ray Mears’ hated Volunteers into an imaginary virtual submission?

As great as that time was, it wasn’t until Kyle Macy appeared on campus that Kentucky would win their first National Championship in my lifetime. Who can ever forget his floor leadership, his free-throw accuracy, his perfect hair, or his dry socks as the Cats defeated Duke for the monumental win. The Goose was definitely golden in St. Louis that night as Macy and crew capped off their “season without celebration,” sending all of BBN and the city of Lexington into a delirious fit of revelry.

Kyle Macy unwelcome? YOU GOTTA BE KIDDING ME!

Don’t get me wrong—I don’t discount the popularity of recent Wildcat stars who have gone on to the NBA. In the pantheon of UK greats, Anthony Davis could arguably have been the most impactful player ever. But if Kyle Macy isn’t welcome or comfortable anymore basking in the glow of the Kentucky Basketball program, then something stinks to high heaven. If one of the greatest stars in the greatest program with “the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball” isn’t welcomed with the sound of blaring trumpets or resounding cymbals anywhere he goes, then our claim of being the greatest fan base in America has been greatly overemphasized.

Yes—there’s something very special about Macy. And you better never forget what it is!     

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.

 

 

Advertisements

A Little Extra Motivation

A Little Extra Motivation

By DR. JOHN HUANG, Nolan Group Media

(LEXINGTON, KY.) – As a die-hard Kentucky fan, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that most of my basketball memories are negative ones. In fact, I daresay that the most indelible ones often involve the year-end heartbreaking defeats. Dating back to the Mideast Regional loss to Jacksonville in 1970, I can tell you exactly where I was every single year that the Wildcats’ season came to an abrupt end. The Laettner shot, Bogans’ sprained ankle, and the Wisconsin shot clock violations all coalescing into a nightmarish potpourri of anger, depression, and grief.

Despite reports to the contrary, it seems that Kentucky fans often do care more about wins and losses than the players themselves. Especially in this decade of one and done, our beloved on-court prodigies quickly move past disappointment. Not long after the final buzzer, they’re basking in the glow of massive NBA contracts and lavish lifestyles while the “average Joe fan” wallows in the pain and agony of yet another tournament loss. If only the players would stick around long enough to experience the heartache, to feel our pain—then surely they’d be extra motivated the next time around.

During the most recent media opportunity, I asked each of the four returning UK players about just that topic. To a man, they said the Auburn loss at the end of the season still grates at their collective core. It serves as a constant reminder and motivational force to propel them to greater heights. Whether that means another Final Four or a Championship trophy remains to be seen. But for a guy bent on spending the first weekend in April at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in Atlanta this upcoming Spring, their words were sweet melodies to my expectant ears and a much-needed salve for my wounded soul.

Sophomore guard Immanuel Quickley figures to garner significant minutes in the backcourt this year. He certainly hasn’t forgotten about that fateful day in Kansas City. “I probably think about it almost every day,” he confessed. “Just knowing that we were that close to getting to a Final Four. You watch it on TV, but to play in the Final Four would have been really cool. It kind of hurts that we didn’t get to do that.”

Backcourt mate Ashton Hagans agreed wholeheartedly. The Wildcats’ sophomore starting point guard appeared cool, confident, and composed—until he was asked about that season-ending defeat. “It’s actually been in the back of my head a lot,” he lamented. “It’s just one of those feelings that will never go away because you were so close. The bond that we created (last year), it was just different. Knowing that we can’t do it with the same group…it hurt. But that just adds fuel to the fire. So you just have to come in, knowing what you could have done last year—just bring it in and just leave it on the court this year.”

Sophomore forward EJ Montgomery was the last of the teammates to pull his name out of the upcoming NBA draft. Temporarily passing on the opportunity to fulfill his dream, he vividly remembers the tearful locker room after the overtime loss to Auburn, and he claims that it’s a definite factor in upping his game this year. “No one wants to go through that, (the disappointment) of times with your team,” he said. “You gotta put in work in the gym. We have some returnees that all felt that, so we’re just going to try our best to get farther.”

OK, who are we kidding? I’m not saying any of these guys returned to school solely to win another national title. Those team-oriented goals and dreams left town with the likes of Kenny Walker and Roger Harden. Granted, times were different back when they played—a bygone era when love for your school trumped even one’s individual career goals. In this day and age of players focused solely on taking their games to the next level, is it even possible that they’d be motivated by defeat?  

Perhaps junior center Nick Richards said it best. After all, he’s suffered through two crushing season-ending upsets—to Kansas State as a freshman and to Auburn as a sophomore. “Those two losses are actually just motivation for me and my game,” he readily admitted. “Just trying to motivate this team. Just to make it to that championship, just to hold up that trophy, just to be on that stage is real motivation for me. I always think about those losses every single day.”

Me too, Nick. With the exception of four years in my lifetime, every Wildcat season has ended in abject disaster. It’s virtually impossible for fans like me to forgive and forget. We’re all hoping that Championship #9 is just around the corner—and that for the returning UK players, a little extra motivation is all that’s needed to get them over the hump.

“That’s the goal for every team—to make it to the Final Four and just win the National Championship,” Nick added.

For all of BBN, we couldn’t agree more.

Dr. John Huang covers University of Kentucky sports for Nolan Group Media. If you enjoy his writing, you can read more at www.huangswhinings.com or follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.  

The End of the Line

The End of the Line

(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.

Maci, Maci, Maci!

Maci, Maci, Maci!

Kentucky’s 72-57 loss to NC State in the 2019 NCAA Tournament Round of 32 signaled the end of another hard-fought basketball campaign. It’s always sad to see the season end. It’s even sadder to see the conclusion of another great college basketball career. Maci Morris will go down in Kentucky Women’s Basketball history as one of the most popular players to ever wear the Blue and White. It was an honor and a privilege to cover her exploits on the court these past few years.

Back in 2017, I wrote my very first feature article for Nolan Group Media. I couldn’t have asked for a better subject. Thanks Maci, for helping me out. And thanks also, from a grateful Big Blue Nation, for all the wonderful memories. Can’t wait to share in all your future successes.

Maci, Maci, Maci! —By Dr. John Huang

(LEXINGTON, Ky.) – Like a vigilant sentinel standing guard over the county line, the roadside highway sign off US 25E in Southeastern Kentucky proudly proclaims “Bell County, Home of Macy Morris, Miss KY Basketball 2015.” Although her name is misspelled, the sentiment remains unmistakable. As a key player for the University of Kentucky Wildcats Women’s Basketball team, the hometown hoops heroine from Pineville carries with her the hopes, the dreams, and the pride of her tight-knit mountain community.

I caught up with Maci shortly after Kentucky’s big road win at Auburn, where she knocked down some huge shots, scored a big game clinching basket, and tallied a career high 9 rebounds. Although we had never met formally, she was gracious enough to speak openly with me about a variety of extended topics. As you might expect, I didn’t encounter the iciness of a cold-blooded 3-point assassin, but rather was overwhelmed by the genuine warmth and affection of someone speaking so fondly from the heart about her family and friends back home.

“Shout outs to all my friends and family and supporters,” Maci said.  “I appreciate you guys more than you know and just thank you for always lifting me up and supporting me throughout my high school and college career. I love everybody back home. Everyone always treated me great.”

The 6’0 All-State guard from Bell County achieved her rise to stardom through both family genetics and a strong individual work ethic. Maci (who was named after UK great Kyle Macy and wears his uniform number 4) explained to me, “I was basically born into basketball. When I was born, my dad was coaching at Hazard, so I was always around the gym. My parents were both athletes. My dad played basketball and baseball and went to college for that. And my mom went to play college basketball as well.” Not only were both her parents star athletes, many other members of her extended family were also heavily into sports. “Both my uncles went to college for baseball and my Papaw and his brother went to college as well for baseball,” Maci added. “My dad’s sister, she went to college for basketball. So, it’s just like a real big athletic family. I have a lot of cousins who went to college for sports as well.”

With athletic ability running rampant in the family, Maci naturally gravitated to sports. As a little girl, she loved being a baseball pitcher. But boys usually played baseball while girls played softball and the thought of pitching underhanded just didn’t appeal to her. Although she ran a little bit of track in high school, everyone knew that basketball would eventually be her calling.

Maci’s high school career was chocked full of accomplishments and accolades. I know—I looked it up and she was great, averaging over 25 points and nearly 8 rebounds while leading her team to a 29-3 record her senior season. “I say all the time how I miss how fun high school ball was,” Maci reminisced. “My best friends were on my basketball team so getting to play with them all the time was great. My senior year was a blast because we went to State and that was the first time a team from Bell County had ever gone to State and won their region. I just really enjoyed it and tried to give it my all my senior year because I knew that coming to college, basketball was going to be a whole different story.”

The awards banquet for her Miss Kentucky Basketball honor provided for a few awkward moments when Coach Joe B. Hall kept referring to her as “Marci” during the presentation ceremonies. When I asked her why in the world she didn’t correct him, Maci gave the perfect answer. “Joe B. Hall is a legend,” she said. “So, I just let him keep going. Everybody thought it was so funny. I had a lot of friends who were there and to this day, they joke around with me and even now call me ‘Marci.’ We all get a big kick out of it.”

When it came time to choose a college, the decision came rather naturally. “When you’re born in Kentucky, you’re basically either a Kentucky or Louisville fan and I was brought up to be a Kentucky fan,” Maci proclaimed proudly. “Coach Mitchell was the main coach who recruited me, so I got to build a relationship with him. I always came up to games because I lived just two and a half hours from here.”

As expected, Maci contributed immediately to the Wildcats in her first college season.  As a freshman, she started all 33 games, averaged eight-and-a-half points per game, and was named to the SEC All-Freshman team. Although success appeared to come easily, there was a lot of hard work behind all the spot-up jumpers and three-point swishes. “I worked hard last year,” she pointed out to me. “My dad told me, ’this is going to be a whole different ballgame. You’re going to get out there and you’re going to have to work as hard as you can. You’ve got to be the hardest worker on the floor.’ I just tried to do that. One of my coaches from last year, he really helped out with that. He would talk to me and just push me to be my best every day.” That hard work paid off as Maci and her teammates experienced the thrill of home crowds as the Wildcats advanced through the Lexington Regional in post-season play.

The speed and pace of the college game is usually the biggest difference for players making the adjustment from high school, and things were no different that first year—even for a talented Miss Kentucky Basketball. “At first it was just like a big difference because I was just so weakly prepared to play on the defensive end” Maci admitted. “The coaches have done a terrific job preparing me and helping me build on my footwork and my speed. Also, our strength and conditioning coach worked with me and the team a lot this summer on our quickness. That’s helped me a lot and having a year underneath me gave me more confidence just being able to know what to expect.”

The diminutive sophomore, who her teammates playfully call “string bean,” also knows that she needs to get stronger. “I have to be more aggressive when I go down low because I’m not as strong as Evelyn (Akhator) and (Makayla) Epps so I have to be more physical and aggressive and play maybe a little bit dirtier,” she jokingly added.

Just like with other normal students, simple adjustments to everyday college life could easily become daunting endeavors for Maci. For student-athletes especially, these adjustments become even more magnified. Class schedules and practice demands frequently turn ordinary daily tasks into creative challenges. “A big thing for me when I was back home was that my mom or my dad always fixed food for me,” Maci expounded. “So here it’s a little different because I live in a dorm. We have a kitchen in our dorm but it’s hard to go out and buy food because of our schedule and to be able to store it in our room. We don’t have a large refrigerator. We just have a mini-fridge. And just eating habits were different and just being able to handle our own time (was difficult).”

Maci claims that becoming better organized is one of her immediate goals. With all her travel to away games, practice schedules, and tutoring sessions, she works hard to better manage her time. She playfully recounted the story of the time she walked all the way across campus to get in her car only to realize that she had forgotten the keys. “Yeah, my cousin came up and we were going to the football game and I have to park my car at like a side street where one of my friends live. So we had to walk all the way and I got over there, and I couldn’t find my keys and I was like ‘Oh my gosh.’ He had already forgotten his jacket, so we had to like go up to our room and like walk all the way back to the car. And once I forgot my keys, we had to walk all the way back to the dorm again, get the keys and get back to my car.”

The summer after her freshman year was fraught with potential turmoil as Maci witnessed half of her former teammates transfer to other schools for a variety of different reasons. Maci and her remaining teammates persevered, strengthening their resolve and commitment to each other in the process. As her sophomore season began, the team got off to an inconsistent start and struggled to develop the confidence and unit cohesion needed for success. After a heartbreaking loss to Arizona State in Rupp Arena, in which she scored a career-high 29 points, Maci appeared on the post-game interview podium with the biggest frowny face you could imagine. When I asked Maci why she was so inconsolable after such a great individual performance, she responded as the consummate team player she is. “I could care less about how much I score,” she said. “As long as my team wins, that’s really all that matters. People were bringing up that I had a great game, but it obviously wasn’t good enough because we lost. Like I said, I’d rather win than score.”

You can obviously tell that being a team player comes naturally to Maci. I’ve noticed how she always speaks so deferentially and respectfully to seniors Epps and Akhator. She and fellow sophomore guard Taylor Murray also have become great friends off the court. Those types of genuine player relationships can’t help but lead to improved team chemistry and future success.

Midway through the conference season, the team seems to have found its groove. When I asked Maci for her thoughts regarding the abrupt turnaround, she said, “I think our loss at Texas A&M just woke us up a little bit. We had to start having fun again. We kind of lost just enjoying the game. After the loss to Texas A&M, we had a talk before practice and we all got together and just told each other we had to play for each other. We have to go out there and give it everything we had and just have fun with it. So, in practice we just worked so hard and just went hard every rep and just put everything there out on the line and it carried over to the next game and then the next game after that, so it just really worked out for us.”

As our session wound down, I decided I’d broach a topic with Maci that other athletes don’t necessarily feel comfortable discussing. Not only was she comfortable discussing her faith, but she appeared more than willing to share her thoughts. “God just gives me this sense of peace,” she said pensively. “I’ve been working on my relationship with Him a lot—especially this year. My New Year’s resolution was to read my Bible every day and to spend time with Him. Already I can see a change within myself–how I treat others and how I look at my day with more positivity. Even when things aren’t going my way, I always look to Him. I trust in Him because I know He’s going to take care of it.” After a momentary pause, she added, “He just always gives me peace.”

If you check out her Twitter page @Maci4Mo, you’ll find Philippians 4:13 as part of the heading. “I can do all things through Christ, who gives me strength.” It’s amazing how someone so young and gifted in her craft could already have developed such a surprisingly mature and joyful spiritual attitude.

As she departed for her tutoring session, I gave Maci a chance to show off another one of her many off the court talents. During a previous post-game interview session, Maci had jokingly hinted to reporters that she was one of the better singers on the team. When I gave her a chance today to demonstrate her vocal prowess, she politely declined. “I’m good,” she said. And that was the end of that.

Instead, she did throw me a final bone by revealing something Big Blue Nation has been dying to know. What goes into the game time decision regarding her hair? How does she determine when to stick with the head band or when to break out those stylish braids? Well it turns out that just like in many other areas of her life, she’s wisely just following her mom’s sage advice. “My mom actually got on to me and that’s why I wore the braids the other day in our last game because she was like ‘you keep fooling with your hair. You need to braid it, so you quit fooling with it in the games. You don’t realize it but that’s all you do is play with your hair.’ So I said ‘OK, I’ll braid it.’”

As I walked back to my car with keys in hand, I realized that there’s not much about Maci Morris for anyone to dislike. She’s a small-town Kentucky athlete pursuing her love of sport at the state university. She’s surrounded by a gaggle of loyal friends and unconditionally supported by her loving family. She’s an exemplary teammate on a team made up of exemplary teammates. Her faith is an example and inspiration to many. She has a fun sense of humor, (a purported) nice singing voice, and great hair. She’s also pretty darn good at basketball. And most importantly, she has nice teeth and a beautiful smile. It doesn’t get much sweeter than that.

Dr. John Huang is a retired orthodontist who covers UK sports for Nolan Group Media. He can be reached at www.huangswhinings.com. Follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.

 

 

 

Final Four or Bust

Final Four or Bust

(JACKSONVILLE, Fl.) – Kentucky’s gilded path to the promised land of Minneapolis got noticeably more difficult this past weekend. After a 79-44 blowout over overmatched Abilene Christian and a 62-56 nail-biter over Wofford in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, the Wildcats now find themselves headed towards Kansas City on a final dash to paydirt.

No one said it would be easy. Besides the usual Calipari to Mars coaching rumors that surface this time of the year, Kentucky fans also had to deal with the unsettling news of PJ Washington’s mysterious foot injury. From walking boot, to hard cast, to scooter assistance, rumors swirled unabated as an anxious fan base awaited final word on their All-American’s playing status. No PJ? No problem—at least in Jacksonville this past weekend. Nothing against Abilene Christian or Wofford, but from here on in, winning without PJ would be nothing short of a pipedream.

For all of BBN, National Championship Number Nine is the ultimate coveted prize. But after all the near misses over the past several seasons, reaching—at the very least—another Final Four will be a critical cog to John Calipari’s coaching legacy. Truth be told, the fan base is getting antsy. Ten straight years of one and done talent with only one title to his name just won’t cut the mustard with the blue-blooded diehards.

Standing in the way this year are Houston and either North Carolina or Auburn—all formidable opponents. None of them will be easy victories, especially if PJ remains sidelined. Granted, Phi Slama Jama, Michael Jordan, and Charles Barkley aren’t walking through that door, but the Cougars (33-3), the Tar Heels (29-6), and the Tigers (28-9) still yield plenty of firepower. Plus, the Wildcats (29-6) have chinks (no pun intended) of their own in their Big Blue armor. The offense still becomes inexplicably stagnant for long stretches at a time. The lack of willing passers this late in the season remains disturbing, to say the least.

Coach Cal has talked all season about the players conquering themselves. “Before you can conquer someone else, you’ve got to conquer yourself,” he reminded the media this weekend. “It means conditioning, a lot of it means pushing through comfort. A lot of it means don’t drink that poison when you’re flattered.”

Reid Travis added to the conquering yourself narrative with an explanation worthy of a Ph.D. dissertation. “Just understanding that it’s that little thing inside of you that’s telling you to stop, that you can’t do it, that you’re not good enough,” said the scholarly Stanford grad transfer. “If you can conquer that, then you can conquer fans…a bad play here, a bad play there…that’s the biggest thing I think (Coach Cal’s) preached all year to our team. It’s not about any other team and what they’re doing. It’s about us playing good basketball. We’ll be just fine. It’s the same thing on the individual level. If you’re confident in yourself and you’re preaching good thoughts to yourself, then things will work themselves out. It starts in the tournament.”

Freshman guard Tyler Herro was a little less revealing. When asked his thoughts on what Coach Cal meant by conquering yourself, he replied hesitantly, “I don’t know.”

And such is the life of a college basketball coach such as John Calipari. Much of what you preach to players often falls on deaf ears. After all, they’re not machines or robots or computers or whatever. No matter how much you show and tell, they’re just a bunch of 18 and 19-year-olds with video games to play and big dreams to fulfill. When it comes right down to it, making it to Minneapolis is a bit of a crapshoot. A bad bounce here, a sprained foot there, a blown call or two and you’ll quickly be watching Alaska shows on cable TV.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t have high expectations every year—especially if you’re the head coach of greatest tradition in the history of college basketball. Settling for mediocrity is a sure path to failure. Eight out of ten Sweet Sixteens, you say? I say not good enough! Final Fours are what matter and four straight years without one is a travesty in the eyes of many. Sure, we’ve been spoiled, but that’s what makes BBN unique. It’s how we roll.

So, for the Wildcats to be successful this weekend in Kansas City, they’ll have to conquer themselves. The opponent is immaterial. It doesn’t matter whether PJ plays or not. Forget about the crowd, or the refs, or the bright lights of the TV cameras. Put thoughts of your future NBA riches on hold for just a second and bask in your one shining moment on the biggest stage of your college basketball careers. Just focus on falling back on your skills, talent, and training—what you’ve worked for your entire life. Listen to your coach.

“He’s a wise man,” Reid reminded me.

Yes he is. For this particular championship run, John Calipari wants and needs it as much as anybody. He needs to conquer himself. Kansas City here we come. It’s Final Four or bust!

Dr. John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Group Media. If you enjoy his writing, you can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.

Bracketology Bias

Bracketology Bias

(LEXINGTON, Ky.) — Immediately after Kentucky’s disappointing 82-78 loss to Tennessee in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament, sophomore forward PJ Washington reassured all of BBN that he saw no reason to worry. “We play next weekend, so we’re fine,” he said confidently. “We knew it was a hard-fought game (against Tennessee). Both teams fought really well. Down the stretch we made some mistakes. They capitalized on us. We play next weekend, we’re going to get it right.”

I’m not sure the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee ever gets it right. After all, when dealing with bracketology, it’s obvious we’re not talking about real science. Sure, there’s the NET, the team value index, the adjusted winning percentage, the SOS, the BPI, all the quadrant breakdowns, the KenPom and the Sagarin rankings. But in the end, it’s all just hocus-pocus—a feeble attempt to infuse objectivity into a process fraught with individual bias. Images of secret handshakes by cigar-chomping administrators in a smoky, dimly lit room still abound in the inquiring minds of basketball fans everywhere. How else could you possibly explain three ACC teams and Gonzaga ending up as the #1 seeds?

Virginia and Gonzaga both lose in their tournaments and it has no effect on seeding. North Carolina loses and the Tar Heels actually move up. ARE YOU KIDDING ME? Meanwhile, losses by Kentucky and Tennessee in the SEC Tournament drop both to a #2 seed. Riddle me this: Why is it that when SEC teams beat up on each other, they get penalized for their losses? When ACC teams lose to each other, it’s like a rising tide lifting all boats. I’m telling you, it’s selection member bias. It’s a skewed perception of how good a team is based on your own preferences and experiences. It’s a highly subjective eye-test viewed—in this case of ACC favoritism—through the distorted prism of East Coast elitism.

The committee tells us that Duke’s mediocrity during Zion Williamson’s injury didn’t count against them, yet North Carolina got credit for beating Duke twice during that same time period that Zion was missing in action. You can’t have it both ways. The Tar Heels—who Kentucky beat in head to head competition—end up with a #1 seed. I guess it doesn’t really matter in the long run since the committee threw Kentucky into the same region as Carolina’s number two.

The folly of the seeding process is further exposed in the geographical jockeying of teams within regions. Kentucky Coach John Calipari had it right when he said, “Just do the S-curve, it’s easy.” Having the top #1 seed play the worst #2 seed and so on down the line not only makes a lot of sense, but takes the prejudice, partiality, and partisanship directly out of the challenges of placing teams within their natural regions. Slotting teams in regions close to home is inherently unfair anyway. Why does Kansas always get to play in Kansas City? I agree with Coach Cal. Just put everyone on the S-curve and let the chips fall where they may. “Everybody charters,” Calipari reminded everyone. “Doesn’t matter where you’re playing.”

Next weekend—Thursday and Saturday to be exact—the #2-seeded Wildcats will be playing in Jacksonville, Florida, taking on 15th-seeded Abilene Christian in the first round of the Midwest Regional bracket. Win that one and the winner of 7th-seeded Wofford versus 10th-seeded Seton Hall awaits in the round of 32. Should Kentucky survive and advance, the NCAA selection committee has once again done them no favors. A ticket to Kansas City for a potential matchup against #3-seeded Houston in the Sweet Sixteen before a much-anticipated Elite Eight rematch versus the top-seeded Tar Heels promises to be no walk in the park. Jacksonville and Kansas City? What happened to Columbus and Louisville? So much for geographical preference.

“There was a chance I thought we would play in Louisville,” said Coach Cal immediately after the brackets were released. “It wasn’t slim…but it was nil. Not happening. But that’s fine.”

Instead, Tennessee gets the #2 seed in the South Region with a chance to play in Louisville. In essence, they stole Kentucky’s dream slot. Up by eight with less than three minutes to play, the Wildcats let a golden opportunity slip agonizingly away. You can’t blame the selection committee for that one.

For this Kentucky team, the road to recovery begins this Thursday. As PJ Washington said—it’s time to make things right. See you in Jacksonville.

Dr. John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Group Media. If you enjoy his writing, you can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.

 

Kentucky “Palatial” Park

Kentucky “Palatial” Park

(LEXINGTON, Ky.) — Move over Rupp Arena and Kroger Field, there’s a new University of Kentucky sports venue in town, and it’s playing second fiddle to no one. On Tuesday, UK Baseball officially christened their brand-new home—Kentucky Proud Park—before 4,074 wide-eyed, Big Blue patrons looking to make history on an unseasonably mild and sunny February afternoon.

For the record, Kentucky (4-3) defeated Eastern Kentucky 7-3 behind the debut start of Grant Macciocchi. The junior right-hander from West Chester Township, Ohio pitched 5.2 masterful innings, giving up one run, three hits, walking one, and striking out six. Junior designated hitter T.J. Collett’s two-run home run over the left-centerfield fence broke open the game in the fifth inning, as the Wildcats marched into the history books with their signature first homefield win.

But the real star of the show was the ballpark itself, adorned with enough opulent amenities to make Disneyland blush. If the goal of building this $49 million palace was to keep up with the Joneses, then Mitch Barnhart and company have certainly hit a homerun.

Nestled on a hilltop along Alumni Drive, the ballpark screams elegance from the get go—its sleek and contemporary design like a sports-themed UFO preparing for liftoff. Unlike its predecessor, The Cliff, the grounds around the new stadium are easily accessible. Parking is ample and convenient, and tailgating is highly encouraged. Throw in a shuttle or two running to and from the front gates, general admission tickets at three dollars a pop, and some well-designed promotional giveaways—and you’ve got all the ingredients necessary for a bona fide, fan-friendly jamboree.

Once inside the stadium grounds, the first thing that strikes you is how spacious the ballpark appears. It’s vast…it’s open…it’s sprawling—like the Grand Canyon opening into a baseball field of dreams. This state-of-the-art facility has permanent seating for 2500 with enough auxiliary space to easily double its capacity. Visually appealing, geometric stone terraces—reminiscent of the Incan ruins on Machu Picchu—cascade vertically from both the left and right field lines. Rent a chair, splash on some sunscreen, and spend the next three hours soaking up vitamin D away from the worries of the real world. Grass berms sloped at an ergonomic thirty-five-degree angle line the outfield corners, providing the perfect blanketed respite for game viewing under puffy white clouds.

The 360-degree concourse, as the name implies, allows fans to view the action from every conceivable angle. Do yourself a favor and take a quick stroll around the circumference. There’s a ton of green space off the left field line and behind the massive electronic scoreboard in center—perfect for either a catered tailgate tent or for the kiddies to run wild. Be sure to tarry awhile at The Hook, the right field bullpen area, dedicated to the loving memory of former UK player Jonathan Hooker. Anyone with a trace of humanity will shed a tear or two reading the plaque commemorating the life of the athlete taken away from us far too early in the crash of Comair Flight 5191.

Getting hungry yet? Concessions at the ballpark won’t disappoint. Even before walking past the box office gates, I smelled the intoxicating aromas of the grilled meats wafting from the ovens of the Athenian Grill. If a lamb gyro doesn’t float your boat, you can also opt for a plate of loaded barbeque nachos from the House-of- ‘CUE. A traditional hot dog will set you back three dollars, a souvenir soda will cost you five. If you’re still hungry for souvenirs, pick up some t-shirts at the mobile kiosk. Or spend your remaining spare change on a green screen generated family photo.

If you’re like “Money” Michael Bennett, take the stairs or the elevator up to the second story terrace level. There you’ll find the luxury boxes complete with all the expected high donor amenities. Relax with a beverage of your choice on the outdoor patio, watching the sun set over the rolling green hills of your Old Kentucky Home, to the peaceful strains of a Jimmy Buffett ballad.

The adjoining press box area was contemporary and modern, but a bit more cramped than I expected. The view was fantastic though—a perfectly designed baseball diamond set against the backdrop of the now sprawling labyrinth of the UK athletic complex. Flashing my media credential, I was hoping for a food voucher—but all I got was a welcoming smile and an overflow seat in the media workroom.

Back downstairs, the behind the scenes player areas are rumored to be some of the best in the business, with spaciously designed locker rooms, lounges, and training areas comparable to luxuries at the Taj Mahal. Evidently no expense was spared in this arms race to entice recruits.

Keith Madison, the iconic coach of the Wildcats from 1979 to 2003 summed it up best after throwing out one of the ceremonial first pitches earlier in the afternoon. “We were talking about how sometimes it’s better to wait and get it right,” he said. “And, boy, they got it right with this ballpark. It’s really nice.”

I agree, Coach. All that’s missing is my food voucher.

Dr. John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Media Group and Sports View America. If you enjoy his writing, be sure to follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.