Sixty Something

John Calipari had a very good week. Not only is his Kentucky team knocking on the door for a #1 NCAA Tournament seed, but the highly venerated coach of the Wildcats also celebrated a rather momentous personal milestone. Yes, Coach Cal turned sixty today, entering a decade of life known more for vacations rather than victories, retirement rather than recruiting, and time-off rather than time-outs. Whereas many of his contemporaries have already succumbed to the rigors of the cutthroat profession, Coach Cal soldiers on, unfazed by the youthful glut of up-and-comers looking to put him out to pasture.

Kentucky’s recent victories over Vanderbilt and Florida gave Calipari—the current dean of the SEC coaches—bragging rights over Bryce Drew and Mike White, two youthful prodigies who only recently joined the coaching fraternity. When asked whether he enjoyed being the old guy teaching these young whippersnappers a thing or two, Coach Cal feigned umbrage and indignation. “I’m allowed to say that (that I’m old), not you,” he joked. “We’ve got terrific coaches in this league. Guys are really committed to their teams and to the game…Mike (White) is a good coach. Bryce (Drew) is a good coach.”

Including White and Drew, eleven out of the fourteen current coaches in the league are younger than Calipari. Will Wade of LSU (age 36) is the youngest, followed by White (age 41), Drew (age 44), Cuonzo Martin of Missouri (age 47), Tom Crean of Georgia (age 52), Frank Martin of South Carolina (age 52), Avery Johnson of Alabama (age 53), Billy Kennedy of Texas A&M (age 55), Bruce Pearl of Auburn (age 58), Kermit Davis of Mississippi (age 59), and Mike Anderson of Arkansas (age 59).

That leaves only Ben Howland of Mississippi State (age 61) and Rick Barnes of Tennessee (age 64) as SEC coaches older than Calipari.

Does age matter in the coaching profession? After all, age-wise, John Calipari is technically old enough to be a grandfather to any of his current players. I don’t care how much you know about basketball or how physically fit you are at sixty, how in the world can baby boomers as Calipari possibly relate to his current Generation Z all-stars? I’m speaking from experience. It’s literally impossible for an old man like me to be properly dialed into the world of video games, shoe fashion, and hip-hop music. Calipari still loves listening to “Soul Sister” for God’s sake. The guy wears corduroy shorts and watches TV shows about Alaska.

“Cal, he’s a cool guy,” said freshman forward EJ Montgomery when I asked him how he relates to his coach off the court. “He tells jokes and he’s always hip to the new stuff. Just a good guy.” When pressed on how an old guy like Coach Cal could even be hip to the new stuff, EJ gave a very diplomatic answer. “Probably learns from Brad (Calipari),” he said with a chuckle.

Apparently, age in the coaching profession is only a number. And the only number that really matters is your record on the court. Just look at Mike Krzyzewski of Duke—still kicking butt at age 71, believe it or not. Jim Boeheim of Syracuse is a year older and currently clocks in as the oldest active coach in Division I at 72 years of age. Roy Williams of North Carolina is 67. Leonard Hamilton of Florida State is 69.

“If they (your players) know you care about them and they know you make it about them, I don’t think age matters,” Calipari told me later. “If you’re into your own numbers, wins and everything is about the program, the program, the program and it isn’t about them and they know it, it doesn’t matter; you’re not going to connect with those kids or their families. Hopefully these kids feel that we’re about them. This is about their success collectively and individually. We try not to leave anybody behind. We’re coaching every kid like they’re a starter.”

Those are poignant words. In addition to being a nice recruiting pitch, I actually think Coach Cal believes what he’s preaching. He relishes his role as teacher, father figure, coach, and mentor to his players. He takes pride in ending generational poverty for their families. He lives for NBA draft night when millionaires are made and lives are changed. I applaud him for that with every fiber of my being.

But that doesn’t mean he’s right. The program does matter. By focusing solely on his “players first” philosophy, he’s delivering a subtle slap in the face to the “average joe” fan who’s ever lived and died with Wildcat fortunes. Kentucky is a poor state. Its residents don’t have a whole lot to be proud of. Having the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball is a source of immense joy and a unifying force throughout all the far reaches of the Commonwealth.

Coach Cal knows that, and yet he still feels the need to constantly prioritize the NBA draft over another national title. He knows the two are not mutually exclusive. Great players make for championships. However, he needs to tone down his NBA rhetoric, at least publicly. Basketball isn’t always about the money—legacy should count for something also. Winning Championship Number Nine will do more for the collective mindset of the citizens of this state than a bevy of first-round picks on draft night. The Program matters! Once Coach Cal acknowledges that, the floodgates of BBN will fully open—releasing a torrent of unity, power, and spirit from the soul of everyone who has ever cheered on the Blue and White.

Happy Birthday, Coach!

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.

Check out his most recent UK Sports coverage at http://www.themanchesterenterprise.com/category/uk-live-breathe-blue/

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They Mad!

Nowadays, there’s a whole lot of anger out and about in the world of sports. Just look around. It seems like everybody is mad at somebody over something or other. I’m sure New Orleans Saints fans are mad, still smarting from that horrifically bad non-call that cost them a trip to the Super Bowl. Bill Belichick looks mad, despite the fact he just won another Super Bowl. Everybody, including Dick Vitale, is mad at the refs and the delays caused by instant replay. Yep, he’s mad. Well, I’m mad at Dickie V for loving so much on Duke. Anyway, you get my point—there’s ire, there’s fury, there’s moral outrage everywhere you turn.

Fortunately for Kentucky, PJ Washington got mad and his teammates responded with a come-from-behind 65-54 road victory over the Florida Gators. Despite the win, Kentucky fans—known for their undying love and passion for their Basketball Wildcats—will forever be mad at the national media over the lack of respect afforded their hardwood heroes. Their team wins big and nobody seems to notice. It’s a conspiracy! Why does everyone outside of BBN hate the Cats, you ask? Let me count the ways.

  1. This first one’s obvious—they hate us because they ain’t us. Eight national championships, 17 Final Fours, the all-time NCAA wins leader, and the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball are magnets for opponent enmity and venom. There’s nothing like a dose of Big Blue envy to stoke the fires of jealousy among the have-nots. “The history,” explained Seth Greenberg of ESPN’s GameDay crew. “You’ve got five different coaches with national championships here. It’s about the program. It’s the people’s program…We go all over the country. We never see anything like this. And that’s what makes Kentucky, Kentucky. Just the genuine passion and ownership people have in the program. You lose a game and everyone’s on suicide watch.”
  2. They hate us because of John Calipari. As much as he’s done for the players in his program and the communities he’s served, ignorant outsiders still view Kentucky’s Coach Cal as the Antichrist—a convicted cheater ruining the game’s purity through his exploitation of the one and done system. It doesn’t matter how many basketballs he autographs, how many hospitals he visits, or how many telethons he sponsors, negative perceptions about him simply will not die. “No one hates us,” Calipari quipped after the Florida win. “People do hate us? Do they hate me? They don’t hate me, do they? Why would they hate me? What have I done?”
  3. They hate us because we’re BBN. We’re everywhere—on social media, traveling to road venues like a swarm of blue locusts, and defending our program like an ambulance chasing attorney. It’s not like we’re intentionally haughty, or conceited, or wanting to get in your face. It’s just that we’re protective of our team and don’t want them talked about in a disparaging manner. You spout fake news about our program and we’re going to make you pay. “I just look at it as they’re all people whose opinions don’t matter really,” said freshman guard Tyler Herro when asked about the haters. “They’re just people who don’t like me or us for no reason really. I feel like a lot of people didn’t like Grayson Allen. They don’t like good white players. That’s how it is.”

Now that the Cats are on a roll, winners of eight straight and finally moving up in the polls, the torch and pitchfork crowd will undoubtedly show up in force—and THEY’LL BE MAD! Mad because Kentucky came and ruined their Super Bowl celebrations. Mad because swaggy Cal has his team primed for another scorched-earth march to Minneapolis. Mad because Kentucky is relevant again in the hunt for title number nine. Mad because Tyler Herro is white. Mad because Reid Travis is smart. Mad because Ashton Hagans stole their souls.

Why does everyone hate Kentucky? Freshman point guard Immanuel Quickley summed it up best. “Actually, I still don’t really know how much people hate us,” he said innocently. “I thought people loved us. But I guess people do hate us too. It comes with it. Good and bad. Any team you go out and play, you want to beat. But I guess especially Kentucky, with the rep that we have, everybody wants to come out and beat us. Just have to be ready to play every game.”

Hey BBN, forget about the haters. Let’s just get ready to play every game…and to win it all. Then we’ll see how really mad everyone else gets. #UnitedWeStand!

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.

Check out his most recent UK Sports coverage at http://www.themanchesterenterprise.com/category/uk-live-breathe-blue/

I Was Wrong!

(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!

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.

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

Partying Like Never Before

Kentucky’s upcoming appearance in the VRBO Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day is cause for celebration. By that, I’m not talking about a festive little soiree with cupcakes and ice cream. I’m talking a real CELEBRATION—an over the top blowout bash complete with champagne and chateaubriand. Because for the first time in my lifetime, the Wildcats are playing in a significant New Year’s Day Bowl game—looking for an elusive 10-win season against a big-time, brand name opponent.

I’ll admit it—I’m older than the burial ground dirt underneath Commonwealth Stadium. As far as UK Football is concerned, I’ve been following them since I was ten years old. That means I’ve been through 50 seasons, 13 bowl games, 9 head coaches, and more losses than I care to count. I saw my first game as a starry-eyed nine-year-old from the end zone bleachers at Stoll Field watching Joe Federspiel chase down opposing quarterbacks. Now I spend my time watching as a grizzled graybeard from the stratosphere of the Kroger Field press box. Through it all, I’ve seen headache and heartache, last-second defeats snatched from the jaws of victory, rotten execution, bad luck, bad calls, bone-headed penalties, and coaching blunders bordering on malpractice.

But that’s all water under the bridge because after five decades, the Wildcats are finally headed to Orlando, playing Penn State in the Citrus Bowl as a reward for one of the best seasons in school history. With that in mind, I thought it would be a perfect time to reflect—with the benefit of fifty years of hindsight—to share with readers three important things I’ve learned during my time following the Cats.

1) It really is about the Jimmies and Joes rather than Xs and Os. I don’t care if it’s the wide tackle six or the air raid. When you look at all of Kentucky’s successful seasons since the late sixties, the one common denominator is that they had star players during those winning runs—not only stars on the football field, but high character team leaders that commanded respect from their fellow teammates. You want to go 10-1 and be ranked in the top ten in ‘77? Then let Derrick Ramsey play quarterback. Is the Outback Bowl your destination in ‘99? Recruit Tim Couch and Craig Yeast. Upset the number one team in the land in ‘07? Jacob Tamme, Keenon Burton, Wesley Woodyard, and Andre’ Woodson are up for the task. Play in the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day against the likes of Penn State in ‘19? Benny Snell, Jr. and Josh Allen will get you there. It’s no secret—great athletes make for successful programs. I’m not saying coaching doesn’t matter, but the ability to recruit star athletes is now what separates the wheat from the chaff. Having a Marks Stoops and a Vince Marrow continually being able to attract SEC-caliber talent to the Bluegrass is the most significant change I’ve witnessed in the program to date and bodes extremely well for the direction of UK’s football future.

2) Kentucky Football fans crave winning. The Wildcats are known as a basketball school, but that doesn’t mean they don’t care about football. In fact, it’s just the opposite—I’ve frequently sensed that the football fan base is every bit as passionate as their basketball brethren. It’s just that losing begets frustration, and frustration stifles enthusiasm. Even with all their two-win seasons, last-second meltdowns, and fumbles into futility, UK Football fans are resilient to a fault—they keep getting up even after getting punched in the face. Give those long-suffering fans that one magical season, and you’ll experience every bit of the excitement, exuberance, and energy usually reserved for a hardwood Final Four run. Just watch—you can bet BBN will descend into Central Florida this year, coating Mickey and Minnie with a blue mist the likes of which Orlando has yet to see.

3) It pays to be in the SEC. I’m not talking just sharing the bowl game payouts—but rather the prestige, power, and prominence of playing in the nation’s best conference. The Cats have come close to bolting on at least a few occasions, but selling your birthright for a chance at a couple of extra wins never made sense to me. Playing Big Boy Football is a privilege, and a tremendous recruiting advantage. To be the best, you must play the best. Trust me on this one—watching Kentucky being able to go up against the likes of Tennessee, Georgia, and Florida every single year is a lot more enjoyable than whipping up on Akron or Murray. It also keeps the program relevant, even in years when we stink. To say Kentucky is an SEC school—IT JUST MEANS MORE!

For BBN, it’s already been a heck of a season. A Citrus Bowl win over the Nittany Lions will just be icing on the cake. This team deserved it. Our fan base earned it. Now it’s time to party like never before! See you in Orlando.

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.

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

 

A Week Like No Other

(LEXINGTON, Ky.) – Just as C.J. Conrad hauled in the untimed 2-yard touchdown pass for Kentucky’s improbable 15-14 win over Missouri, I felt the earth suddenly shift. It wasn’t just a tepid tremble or slight quiver, but rather a gargantuan seismic displacement as the sports world tipped precariously on its axis. I never thought I’d be able to say these words in my lifetime, but KENTUCKY FOOTBALL IS RELEVANT ON THE NATIONAL LANDSCAPE!

Yes, you heard me right—Kentucky Football. The 11th-ranked Kentucky Wildcats will host the Georgia Bulldogs this coming Saturday at Kroger Field for a chance to do something they’ve never done before. Win that battle and the Cats are on their way to Atlanta to play in the SEC Championship Game.

Before everyone starts booking rooms on Peachtree, realize that it won’t be easy. Georgia leads the all-time series with Kentucky 57-12-3. They’ve won 19 of their last 21 games against the Wildcats, including the last eight in a row. Coach Kirby Smart’s #6 Bulldogs rolled over #13 Florida 36-17 last Saturday in their annual cocktail bash. They’ve got NFL-caliber talent and a pedigree to match. Make no mistake about it, Georgia’s as good as advertised.

But if there’s a defensive unit I’m rolling with, it has to be this year’s Wildcats. They’re now tied with Clemson for number one in scoring defense. They’re 10th in total defense, 12th in pass efficiency defense, and 17th in run defense. Against a high-powered Missouri offense, they forced eight straight three-and-outs in the second half. YOU GOTTA BE KIDDIN’ ME! I’ve never seen anything like it. As I’ve said before, https://huangswhinings.com/2018/10/21/as-good-as-it-gets , Josh Allen, Mike Edwards, and crew have proven themselves to be arguably the best EVER to have worn the blue and white.

Paul Finebaum of the SEC Network recently congratulated Coach Mark Stoops and the Wildcats on their recent big victory. “The scene Saturday in Lexington for Georgia will be epic,” he tweeted. In my opinion, the word “epic” does a disservice to the spectacle that is brewing in the Bluegrass. Batten down the hatches, cuz a big storm’s a comin’.

If Kentucky wins this Saturday, it’ll be an exorcism of sorts. No longer will ghosts of the long-suffering football past be haunting the Big Blue. Out with Florida and Chris Doering in 1993, or LSU and the Bluegrass miracle in 2002. No more bone-headed penalties, clock mismanagement, or botched coverages snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Disregard losses to Vanderbilt with twenty people left in the stands. Or Lonas Sieber missing a makeable 35-yard field goal in overtime to beat Tennessee—fuhgeddaboudit! ALL OF IT!

No, it’s out with the old and in with the new. From here on in, nothing but last-second victories, crowd-surfing coaches, and jubilant field-stormings allowed. A victory over the Bulldogs and you’ll see couches burning on campus like never before. A half-century of pent up angst and frustration released in sixty minutes of gridiron glory. How can you possibly top that?

WITH BASKETBALL OF COURSE!  Believe it or not, three days later, Kentucky Basketball opens their regular season at the Champions Classic in Indianapolis against—get this—Duke University. It’s Mike Krzyzewski, the head devil himself and public enemy number one, bringing in his top-rated recruiting class to battle Calipari and his Cats. The villainous legacy of Steve Wojciechowski, JJ Redick, and Grayson Allen be damned. Ever since the Laettner shot, Kentucky fans have forever thirsted for sweet revenge on the national stage.

Should Kentucky upset Georgia in football and knock off Duke in basketball, I’m not sure what I’ll do—maybe shave my head, get a tattoo, or streak naked along press row. Historic milestone wins within single sports don’t happen very frequently. Titanic victories within dual universes simply don’t happen at all—NEVER!

That’s why this upcoming week may be the most significant in my half-century as a Wildcat fan. We’re not talking just monumental, extraordinary, or grand. With all due respect to Paul Finebaum, we’re not even talking “epic.”  We’re talking the best one-two punch ever delivered—within a three-day span—by the most passionate fans on the face of the earth. Get ready for another seismic shift. Buckle your seatbelts BBN. It’ll be a week like no other—and I’ll be there to cover it all. Go Big Blue!

Dr. John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Media Group and a lifelong Wildcat fan. He’s currently working with former LEX18 sportscaster Alan Cutler on his new book. If you enjoy his writing, you can read more at www.huangswhinings.com or follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.

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

As Good As It Gets

(LEXINGTON, Ky.) – In the Commonwealth of Kentucky, nothing stokes the fires of passion more than a highly ranked basketball team. This year’s no different as John Calipari has once again reloaded his roster for another championship run. Most preseason rankings have the Wildcats near or at the top of the polls. If the Blue-White scrimmage was any indication—then death, taxes, and the Basketball Cats being good are certainties that have become par for the course.

But whoa—look what else is good this year. Kentucky Football is now 6-1 and in the hunt for an elusive SEC crown. A victory next week against the Missouri Tigers sets up a titanic showdown with the Georgia Bulldogs that might just determine who plays for the league title in Atlanta. For True Blue Kentucky fans, this is rarefied air. For since when have both basketball and football been this good together at the exact same time?

The closest it’s ever come in my lifetime was back in the 1977-78 season when the basketball team won the National Championship while the football team went 10-1. “Goose” Givens and teammates were the big men on campus in ’78. Unfortunately, Art Still and the gridiron Cats were on probation the year before, so there was never really a chance for two-pronged postseason prominence.

How about…in 1984? The football team, coached by Jerry Claiborne, achieved a #19 national ranking, while their basketball brethren, under Joe B. Hall made it to another Final Four. As much as we all enjoyed that year, Hall of Fame Bowl victories over Wisconsin and flameouts to Georgetown in the national semifinals just won’t quite cut the mustard for all-time runs.

How about…in 1998? Tubby’s Comeback Cats won the title in San Antonio that spring, while Tim Couch and the football team played in the Outback Bowl on the following New Year’s Day? National Championship #7 in basketball certainly fit the bill, but a 7-5 football season and a bowl game loss really can’t qualify for the best of all time.

How about 2007-08, you say? For long-suffering football fan bases, upsets against #1 ranked teams such as LSU don’t come along very often, nor do all-time studs like Andre’ Woodson, Rafael Little, Keenan Burton, and Jacob Tamme. But neither do UK basketball coaches like Billy Gillispie. Enough said about that one.

So, how about…never? Usually by the time Big Blue Madness rolls around, the football team has unceremoniously self-destructed. Leaves changing color and clocks rolling back are sure fire signals for rabid Cat fans to head for the hardwood. Forget about tailgating and touchdowns. Bring on dazzling dunks and Dan Dakich. Come Halloween, football becomes an afterthought as basketball reigns supreme.

Success in both sports? Truth be told, it’s what we’ve been waiting for all these years. Whether Benny or Brad, C.J. or PJ, Terry or Tyler, Kentucky fans have been aching for such long-awaited prosperity. Must-win football games week after week intermingled with impending basketball Armageddon with Duke is a veritable dream come true. Throw in a few swaggy head coach press conferences, some animated radio call-in shows, and some spirited practice highlight videos and you’ve got the makings of a Big Blue November nuclear meltdown. My ticker can’t handle such an all-out, twofold assault.

Can such dual success happen here at Kentucky? Sure it can—but it’s rare for both football and basketball to be good at any school for any consistent period of time. In this century, the University of Florida is the only school to have won a national title in each. For the record, the Gators have two apiece. Ohio State, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Louisville, and Michigan State are in hot pursuit, also laying claim to dual sport affluence.

Kentucky Basketball can win it all for sure this year, but it’s WAY too much of a stretch to think the Football Cats are in the hunt for a national crown. Or is it? For the moment, just guarantee me a spot against the Crimson Tide in Catlanta, and you won’t hear me whining about football ever again. The point being that it’s rare we get to enjoy such a one-two punch this late into the Stoops’ Troop season with such high expectations still looming for Calipari’s Cats.

Enjoy this ride of a lifetime, Wildcat fans. Take it from me—savor these precious moments. As much as I hate to say it, past history indicates that this might be as good as it gets for a long, long time.

Dr. John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Media Group and a lifelong Wildcat fan. He’s currently working with former LEX18 sportscaster Alan Cutler on his new book. If you enjoy his writing, you can read more at www.huangswhinings.com or follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.

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

I Love My Team

Although we didn’t hear him say it directly, John Calipari apparently still loves his team. During the most recent Kentucky Basketball Media Day, the UK head man repeatedly professed his adoration for his talented squad of young superstars. Just as he did with John Wall, Anthony Davis, Willie Cauley-Stein, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Tyler Ulis, Coach Cal waxed eloquently about the merits of this year’s Wildcats—hereby officially sending fan expectations soaring into the Big Blue stratosphere.

“When you don’t have to coach effort,” Cal said. “When you don’t have to coach the enthusiasm, the passion you have to play with. When you don’t have to coach a competitive spirit…I don’t have to coach that with this team. So now you know what you’re coaching? Basketball. So now you coach basketball. And I love coaching basketball.”

Before you start making reservations for the Final Four in Minneapolis, realize that Cal’s teams haven’t always matched up to the preseason hype. The 2013 NIT team—with the unfortunate injury to Nerlins Noel—obviously fell short of True Blue expectations. Other Calipari teams–such as his most recent one featuring Kevin Knox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander—simply ended up lacking the star power needed to make a significant run. The point being that star-studded recruiting classes don’t automatically translate into national championship juggernauts right out of the gate.

Don’t worry, though—I’m not pooping on this year’s parade. This mix of mega-talented recruits and critical returning lettermen appear to be on par with Coach Cal’s best Kentucky team to date—the 2015 thirty-eight and one group that fell just a couple of games short of perfection. Why is this current team potentially as good as that one? Let me count the ways.

First of all, the return of PJ Washington is HUGE. The 6’8”, 228-lb power forward declared for the 2018 NBA draft, but decided to come back to school not only to improve his draft stock (and free throw shooting), but with the hopes of winning a national championship. After leading the team in rebounding and averaging double figures in scoring last year, PJ gives the Cats the bona fide, experienced leader they so desperately need. Together with a new and improved, rim-protecting Nick Richards, Kentucky’s inside presence suddenly moves from liability to strength.

Adding to that presence, graduate transfer Reid Travis joins the party. Talk about a fortunate get. The First Team All-Conference selection averaged 19.5 points and 8.7 rebounds last year playing for Stanford in the highly competitive Pac-12. Not only is Reid an experienced and skilled low-post player, but he’s also one of the most articulate interviews I’ve ever encountered. His pre and postgame eloquence will be worth five points alone. I’ll look forward to some verbal sparring with him in the season to come.

Shooting has always been one of Team Calipari’s bugaboos. Cal’s first Kentucky team, the 2010 squad, was arguably his best. But they couldn’t throw it in the ocean and ultimately fell victim to West Virginia in the regional finals. You might say that outside of Doron Lamb and Devin Booker (for about a month), Calipari really hasn’t had the benefit of any dead-eye shooters.

All that promises to change this year. Word has it that Jemarl Baker Jr., if he ever gets a clean bill of health, will be as accurate a knock-down shooter as anyone who has previously worn the blue and white. Tyler Herro, who’s sure to be a fan favorite, and returning sophomore guard Quade Green, have also both shown that they can consistently tickle the three-point twine. Gone are the days of opponents cheating down low, daring Wildcat bricklayers to chuck up air balls.

So far, so good you say? I haven’t even mentioned the most explosive portion of Kentucky’s arsenal. Incoming freshman Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickley, EJ Montgomery, and Keldon Johnson are all multi-talented five-stars that can run, jump, pass, and shoot. Of the four, Johnson comes in with most hype, but all of them may be talented enough to enter the pantheon of John Calipari’s growing list of one and dones.

It gets even better. All those guys take pride in their defense—being able to hassle you endlessly to the point of despair. “Ashton is a pit bull, a mauler on the ball,” Calipari gushed. “You can play he and Immanuel together. Tyler’s better than I thought he was. I thought Keldon would be better than Tyler defensively, but I’m not sure of that. And our big guys can guard guards, so we can switch everything, we can scramble around, we can still press. There’s a lot of stuff we’re going to be able to do.”

One final point to get you salivating. Everyone knows how important team chemistry is. Elite and talented superstar teams with infighting and jealousies seldom taste success. Initial reports indicate that this year’s team is feasting on brotherhood. Calipari’s servant leadership lessons have already taken hold. Throw in their on-the-court jump start with the Bahamas exhibitions, and you’ve got the makings of one of the most exciting and fun-to-watch UK teams ever assembled. A legitimate run towards Championship Number Nine should be anticipated and expected.

Will it happen? It’s still a bit too early to tell. But from what I’ve seen and heard so far, they’ve got as good of a chance as anyone. With a couple of favorable breaks, Minneapolis in April seems like a distinct possibility.

“Well, if this team becomes empowered and it becomes their team, then this becomes scary,” Cal warned. Come to think of it, you might just want to make those hotel reservations after all.

Dr. John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Media Group, Bluegrass Sports Nation, and Sports View America. He’s currently working with former LEX18 Sportscaster Alan Cutler on his new book. If you enjoy his writing, you can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.

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