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.

 

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/

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