Part two in an eight part series previewing the 2014 Kentucky Football Wildcats. Cats hope →
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I’m finally back in Nashville after a long day of traveling and a whirlwind month on the road. I don’t think I’m alone when I say that Tuesday was a rough day for the Big Blue Nation, and like Cal, I woke up sadder than I was Monday night. Since then, I feel as though I’ve gone through each of the stages of grief, starting with flat out denial in the closing minutes of the game. Was it really happening? Was the magical run actually over? Were we really losing to UConn? From there, I moved to anger, mostly projected on Rex Chapman for that ill-timed tweet Monday night, then to bargaining. If only we had shot our free throws…if only Willie had been able to play…if if if.
As we sat in the Dallas airport waiting for our flight, I watched the pictures and tweets roll in as the team made their way from Bluegrass Airport to Rupp Arena, and the depression truly set in. Seeing fans line the streets to greet the players was emotional enough, and when the bus stopped at Cardinal Hill Rehabilitation Hospital so the players could say hello to the patients lined up on the sidewalk, I’ll admit, I lost it a little bit. It’s easy to be a fan when you’re winning. What makes you a true fan is being there when they lose. The Big Blue Nation is special for that reason. Today is tough not only because we lost, but because we know we won’t see this team together again. Of course, Jon Hood and Jarrod Polson will be gone, and many others will likely follow. It’s especially cruel because they only just started to play as a team in the past month. In that month, they’ve been one of the most exciting teams I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching. Calipari has said time and time again that he wants more time with this group. As I saw the love flowing between the BBN and the players this afternoon, I couldn’t help but long for the same thing.
While the BBN gets a lot of flack nationally for being overly critical and hysterical (some of which is warranted), moments like these are a reminder of why we’re the best fan base in the world.
After a few days of reflection, I imagine I’ll move on to acceptance. Until then, think of this as group therapy.
Another banner is raised
Listening to Oscar Combs and Neil Price anchor the Rupp Arena season celebration was a therapy all of its own. Although the crowd was much smaller than if they had won, you can tell Calipari and the fans were touched by the warm reception. Cal looked absolutely exhausted as he addressed the crowd, using notes for once he was so tired. You could hear the sadness in his voice, and see it on the players’ faces. Even though their postseason run was improbable, the loss still hurts. “It was a disappointment, but in other ways, this was a huge accomplishment,” Cal said. Jon Hood, always the ambassador, came forward to speak to the crowd on behalf of the team, and in an awesome moment of lightness, a fan yelled out “One more year!” which made everyone laugh. It’s hard to believe that Hood’s been with this team as long as Cal has, and it seemed appropriate that he used one of Cal’s catchphrases to describe the reception today: “I know coach says it a lot, but y’all are seriously crazy.”
The ceremony may not have had the pomp and circumstance of a championship celebration, but it was still emotional, an essential part of moving on. Today, more than ever, I’m grateful to be a part of this.
And now, we wait
The early entry deadline for the NBA Draft is April 28. Until then, get ready for two and a half weeks of “will they or won’t they.” As of now, here’s where I believe each player stands in regards to the draft, in the order of most likely to leave to least likely:
Julius Randle: Randle is UK’s best pro prospect, a projected top 5 pick, and therefore the most likely to leave. He’d be silly not to.
James Young: On Tuesday, Adam Zagoria cited an NBA executive that said Young would go 15-22 in the draft, maybe even higher if he performs well in workouts. Young’s dunk on Monday showed us why keeps getting favorable projections. His potential is staggering, even if it needs a bit of fine tuning.
Willie Cauley-Stein: Willie is a bit of a wildcard. After the game, he said he would “definitely” consider coming back in order to finally get that National Championship he’s coveted, but comments made in the heat of the moment shouldn’t be taken seriously. I have no doubt Willie is being honest when he says he feels a void without a title, but he’s improved his game a lot, and is one of the most athletic big men in the draft. It wouldn’t shock me if Willie returns, but after reviewing the facts, I think he’ll go.
The Harrison Twins: I thought about listing these two separately, but I can’t see one going to the league without the other. Both improved their draft stock in the Tournament, but are still considered late first rounders/second rounders by most projections. With another year at Kentucky, I think they could improve their stock immensely, but it’s all about whether or not they want to risk being drafted in the second round. First round is great, but second round means you don’t have a guaranteed contract, and in most cases, end up in the D-League. Their father has made it clear that the NBA doesn’t have to be a priority, but right now, they’re riding a wave of good publicity. Considering their unique situation, I’d say they’re a toss-up.
Alex Poythress: Poythress had some big games in the tournament, and at times, we saw just how explosive he can be. One more year in Cal’s system could bring him out of his shell even further and give him time to get his degree. Never say never, but Alex has one of the strongest cases for staying.
Dakari Johnson: At some point this weekend, I think Dakari slipped up and said his plan all along was to be in school two years. With another year, he could develop into a powerhouse big man. I think he stays.
Marcus Lee: He was one of the darlings of the tournament, and with another year to put some muscle on that frame, could be an absolute star. Lee loves college, and needs another year.
Only 19 more days of this! Aren’t you excited?
Rex Chapman will be on the show tomorrow
It takes a lot to steal the spotlight away from the National Championship game, but on Monday night, Rex Chapman managed to do it with his tweet about Cal and the Lakers. On Tuesday, Chapman backed off that tweet a little bit, telling the Dan Patrick Show he believes Cal will stay at Kentucky. On Wednesday, he’ll come on the radio show to discuss it with Matt. Sounds like must-listen radio to me.
See you then.
Former Cat Rex Chapman caused the fur to fly just minutes prior to the tip of the national championship game Monday night with a tweet saying that win or lose, Kentucky coach John Calipari would leave to coach the Los Angeles Lakers:
@rexchapman: Was messin’ ‘round on Sat nite re: Cal. But word is — win or lose 2nite — it’s a #DoneDeal…Cal 2 La-La-Land 2 coach Mamba’s Lakers. #NoBS
Calipari responded to Chapman’s tweet when asked about it during the postgame press conference Monday night, but UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart took it a step further Tuesday.
During an interview with WKYT sports anchor Christi Thomas after a planned celebration at Rupp Arena, alluded to Chapman’s tweet, calling it “absolute garbage.”
For more on Chapman’s tweet and other postgame fallout, check out CatsPause.com
That was the way that the 2013-2014 version of the Wildcats closed the season following last night’s loss in the National Championship. The game was a gut wrenching loss that likely saw many of them suit up in blue for the final time and come up just short from the storybook ending we all wanted to see.
What an ending to their tale it would have been. From a group of kids who wouldn’t commit to the same school because they don’t get along to men who overcame the toughest road ever journeyed. From kids who had to deal with hype about being the best class ever to basketball superstars that displayed why that claim was made. From articles pronouncing that freshman just couldn’t win to a team that took the best shots from senior laden, more experienced squads, and found a way to win not once but four times. What an ending it would have been. What an ending it was.
Yes, it’s disappointing the team lost last night but one month ago there were people saying Kentucky would finish the season 0-3 with one-and-done appearances in the two tournaments. Instead, they scratched and clawed their way to a 7-2 record in the postseason while setting benchmarks that will likely never be broken. Beating the two team who played in last year’s title game. Beating 3 of the 4 previous Final Four. Winning four games by less than five points. They found the heart of a champion and taught us all that when your back is against the wall all you gotta do is come out swinging.
The year was one that was filled with highs and lows but without question the peaks were so high it’s hard to even recall those 10 valleys. Highs like two wins over archrival Louisville, Aaron’s multiple game winners, the emergence of Alex Poythress, the fight of Randle, the step up of Lee, and Andrew taking control of the offense. Highs that can only happen when guys quit playing for themselves and each game prepare to go to war with their brothers in arms.
Like Cal said one day our grand-children will ask about the banners that hang in the rafters of Rupp and it’ll be hard not to be filled with pride for the one hung earlier today. While the 2014 Runner-up banner may never have the esteem of some of the eight that hang there now it’s hard to imaging one that’s more memorable. A banner that led fans to wear the same beer splattered jerseys without wash and travel to the same bars and sat in the same spots. A banner that forced our leader, Matt Jones, to leave the arena each game. A banner that took 7 freshman and 2 sophomores from 7 different states spread all over the nation and forged them into a group of brothers. A banner worthy of the greatest tradition in college basketball history.
Truly, a storybook ending regardless of the score of last night’s game and one I’d relive time and again if I could. Just like Aaron predicted it was a great story indeed.
Couldn’t make it to Rupp this afternoon to welcome back the Cats? KyWildcatsTV put together this video of the ceremony for fans, including some footage of people lining the drive from the airport to the arena. Seeing the looks on the players’ faces as they see the fans coming out to support them is truly heartwarming, and another reminder that at moments like these, the BBN really is the best.
One of these days, these guys will be grandfathers. They’ll tell their grandkids, “Let me tell you about my freshman year…” – John Calipari
Think of the stories the guys who played on this year’s team will be able to share someday with their grandchildren, friends, spouses, family, or whoever will lend an ear. The amount of memories collected over the course of an entire season, living and breathing every moment of it with one another. Imagine the stories they will have to tell. This was their life. These 18, 19, a few over 20-year olds got to experience so much in such a short period of time. This was their journey. They lived these moments.
But in a way, so did we.
Sure, none of us hit a game-winner, or grabbed a crucial rebound. But this journey these young men took us on was part of our lives as well. They will have stories to tell their grandchildren. But so will we… This team gave us the kind of memories and stories we will be able to tell our grandchildren about too. What a gift.
The ending wasn’t perfect. It’s hard to ignore the twinge of that empty feeling of getting so close, but coming up just a little shy. One game shy of the overall glory. Six points short. A play here. A rebound there. A call here. A missed shot there. The magical run finally just ran out. So no…the ending wasn’t perfect. Only eight other teams in Kentucky’s 100+ year basketball history have walked away with a better ending though.
But oh, the stories we will tell…
The most talked about recruiting class of all-time. The unprecedented pre-season hype. The whispers of 40-0. The thrilling environment and kickoff to the college basketball season in a game that pitted #1 vs. #2 , Kentucky vs. Michigan State. The roller-coaster ride in the middle of the season that left our hopes hanging by a thread. The resurrection in the SEC tournament: a young team showing signs of life. The group of death in the Midwest, saddled with a disappointing 8-seed. Knocking off the previously unbeaten, 35-0 Wichita State team– a team chasing college basketball history, in only one of the highest quality college basketball games of all time. Punches. Counter-punches. Freshmen making veteran plays down the stretch. Saving the season. The joy on those players’ faces. The joy in Lexington. A highly anticipated showdown with arch-rival Louisville in the Sweet 16. A late game comeback… on the back of Alex Poythress. Aaron Harrison’s three-pointer. Stealing the victory from the Cards in the final minute. The joy on those players’ faces. The joy in Lexington. Another brilliant college basketball game, this time against Michigan. Two teams putting on an offensive show. Aaron Harrison’s game-winning 3-pointer. The joy on those players’ faces. The joy in Lexington. The hoopla of being in a Final Four and being THE story across the country, once again, for an entire week. A tough battle with Wisconsin… yet another great game. A thrilling game of runs by both teams. Alex Poythress leading the comeback charge, again. Aaron Harrison with yet ANOTHER game-winning three… this one perhaps even more dramatic than the first. The joy on those players’ faces. The dog pile. The joy in Lexington.
The final game didn’t provide the ultimate story to tell– that of a national championship. When we tell the stories of this season– the many, many stories, the biggest game of them all might not even come up. And yet other championship seasons may not have the stories that live up to the ones from this journey. Sure, the elation and incredible feeling of winning a national championship cannot be rivaled. No one would trade a national championship for a runner-up finish, no matter what the “story” or journey. Not all national championship runs have the story lines and moments that this 2014 season had though.
The 2012 national championship was incredible. That team was one of the best Kentucky teams to take the floor. That team was hands-down the best team that entire season. That team was dominant. That team had lovable guys like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Anthony Davis, Darius Miller, etc. But when you think back to that national championship run, how many individual moments, or even games in general truly stand out? The celebrations, the feeling of finally winning a title after waiting since 1998… all of those things stand out. Can you think of a shot, or a particular game, or a particular play in a game during that run that you will tell your grandchildren about someday?
So again, maybe this team and this journey came up a little bit short. 2014 will never live in the same very immortalized sentence as 1948, 1949, 1951, 1958, 1978, 1996, 1998 and 2012. But these stories… These stories will be told. By the players. By the coaches. By the media members who wrote about it. By all of us.
You can’t take these stories or these moments for granted. When it’s all said and done, you just never know when something like this will happen again.
… One of these days I will tell my grandchildren, “Let me tell you the story about these freshmen…”
Over the weekend the Final Four caused a couple of Yahtzees! to get lost in the chaos. Mark Stoops made a giant step forward with the Class of 2015 after receiving four offensive line commitments in three days. Levon Livingston, Logan Stenberg, Larry Wells and Mason Wolfe have an average height of 6’7 and a combined weight of 1,155 pounds. Here’s a little rundown of what you need to know about your new additions that have caused the Cats jump to 27th nationally in 247′s Class of 2015 rankings.
Henderson, KY (Henderson County)
6-7 280 pounds
247 Composite Rating: .8089***
Mason Wolfe is one of the biggest in-state prospects in the Class of 2015, and Neal Brown wanted to make sure the big fella stayed home. When Wolfe was asked why he committed to Kentucky he responded, “Why Not?” Wolfe was being pursued by some of the biggest schools in the land – Alabama, Cal, Arkansas and Florida State – but he has completely bought into the New Kentucky Football and coach Mark Stoops.
Offensive Tackle/ Defensive End
Washington, DC (Ballou SHS)
6-7 250 pounds
247 Composite Rating: .8667***
Livingston might be the biggest recruit the Cats have landed so far in 2015, rated as a 4-star by 247 Sports. The highly-heralded D.C. lineman was being heavily pursued by West Virginia, Rutgers, NC State and Clemson before choosing the Cats at his visit over the weekend. Livingston could play on either side of the ball, but he prefers to play on the offensive side. Livingston is an athletic specimen that moves well, low to the ground. His primary recruiter, Tommy Mainord, has been very effective at reeling in commitments from the Northeast.
Kenton, OH (Kenton)
6-8 298 pounds
247 Composite Rating: .8333***
Vince Marrow added another big recruit from his home state to grow the Ohio presence at UK. Marrow persuaded Wells to turn down Cincinnati, Illinois, Akron and Kent State for Kentucky blue. “I just loved everything about it. I felt at home. And the facilities are awesome – as is the coaching staff,” Wells told CatsPause.com. Playing his high school ball in the spread offense, Wells is an excellent pass protector that will have plenty of experience when he arrives to campus.
Madison, AL (James Clemens)
6-6 327 pounds
Stenberg is everything you love about a ‘big nasty’ at offensive tackle. The big boy from Bama has plenty of SEC size, yet he can still lower his shoulder on the smallest of foes to make them pay. What’s most impressive is his ability to block downfield in open space, something rare in a kid that’s 6’6″, 327 pounds. Stenberg had flown under the radar for most of his recruitment, accepting his second scholarship offer from John Schlarman and the Kentucky Wildcats.
Willie Cauley-Stein had to watch the final three games from the sidelines. It was tough on the big guy, saying that he didn’t really feel a part of the team because he couldn’t help them on the court. Picking him up when he’s down, the #BBN has since showed how much they love their Willie.
Gahhh I LOVE the BIG BLUE NATION!
— ☆€@TAL¥ST☆ (@TrillGeta15) April 8, 2014
I can't tell if we lost that game last night after witnessing what I am right now
— ☆€@TAL¥ST☆ (@TrillGeta15) April 8, 2014
Coach John Calipari took the podium this afternoon in front of an impressive workday crowd at Rupp Arena to commemorate the magical run of this group of young Wildcats. Calipari started off by saying that in some ways this season could be classified as a disappointment. With a lackluster regular season, some embarrassing losses, and the failure to live up to the impossible preseason hype, yes, some could argue that. Cal followed that up by saying that “in other ways, this was a huge accomplishment.” By making a historic run through the NCAA Tournament: taking down unbeaten Wichita State, in-state rival and defending National Champion Louisville, Big 10 Champion and defending tournament runner-up Michigan, and powerful Wisconsin in front of over 79,000 fans…I think that is the argument that wins out, and that is what everyone will remember from this special group of kids.
Calipari has a multitude of special moments in his long coaching career, but you could tell that this one just might mean the most. “This was an unbelievable journey that none of our staff or players will ever forget. We will never forget this journey.” With media around the world dressing the grave for this young Kentucky team, and plenty calling out for Calipari seemingly not knowing how to coach, him and this team proved every single one of us wrong.
While many of the players will soon be deciding whether or not to stay in school or pursue an early professional career in the NBA, they will always have these past three weeks to look back on with happiness and pride. Calipari painted an image for everyone listening of the older versions of James Young, Julius Randle, Aaron Harrison, and the rest of the team, saying:
At some point they’re gonna be a grandfather. Their grandson is gonna sit on their knee and they’re gonna say: ‘Grandad, tell me about when you used to play.’ [These players will be able to say] Let me tell you about my freshman year, we had the youngest team in the country, we played the number one schedule in the country. We went in the NCAA Tournament and they gave us the hardest seed they could possibly give us. Matter of fact, late, we had this 7 foot center Willie Cauley-Stein and he couldn’t even play, no one even mentioned it. Son, we were down double digits every game, and we fought back, and came back, and you know what? We finished 2nd in the entire country, grandson. You’re gonna look at em and say I hope you’re proud of me for that because it was an accomplishment.
Coach Cal ended his speech thanking those in Big Blue Nation for their continued support, but also throwing a jab at those who doubted him and the team throughout the year. “I wanna thank everyone in here who believed in this team and inspired us. I also have to thank those of you who didn’t because you motivated us…sorry, I couldn’t help it.” On behalf of Big Blue Nation, thank you Cal.
Bask in the glory of yet another banner being hung in Rupp. “Remember and continue to remember, we are breaking barriers.”-Calipari
Homegrown Senior Jon Hood spoke on behalf of the players during today’s celebration at Rupp Arena. Greeted by the student section’s Jon Hood song, a fan from the crowed hollered, “FOUR MORE YEARS!” to Hood as he took the stage, “they won’t let me.”
Hood has been there for the entirety of Calipari’s tenure at Kentucky, marking the end of an era that saw an Elite Eight, two Final Fours and a National Championship. Hood was gracious for his time at Kentucky, thanking the fans for love throughout the ups and downs.
“I know Coach says it a lot, but y’all are seriously crazy.”
After hopping off the plane on the return from Dallas, the Cats got on the bus and drove over to meet fans at the airport and thank them for the support. On the way from Bluegrass Airport to Rupp Arena, the Big Blue motorcade took a pit-stop to visit a few patients at Cardinal Hill Rehabilitation Hospital. How cool is that?
Reports from Rupp Arena haven’t been too pleasant so far. The crowd has been a bit underwhelming, with only a few thousand in the stands. Someone decided to put an ice rink on the floor.
Jobs and class have kept many away (including me), but there is still time to fill the seats and thank your team for an absolutely incredible NCAA Tournament.
UPDATE: 3:10 pm
Just like this year’s basketball team, you can’t lose faith in the #BBN.
After entering the NCAA Tournament unranked, Calipari’s Cats finished the season at number two in the nation, right behind the Huskies of Connecticut. Kentucky was one of three SEC teams to finish in the top 25, as Florida checked in at 3rd and Tennessee is 23rd. After UK started the season ranked first in the nation, they only dropped one single spot in the rankings six months later. Sounds like a success to me…
Early predictions for next season’s pre-season ranking?
The Cats have landed at Bluegrass Airport and will be making their way into Rupp Arena shortly to celebrate the 2014 season. They’ll be greeted by thousands of fans and a brand new banner in the rafters.
Blue banners are beautiful.
The team will land in Lexington around 2 p.m. ET today, and will immediately head to Rupp to celebrate the season with fans. Doors will open at Rupp at 1:30 p.m., and the team is expected to arrive in the arena around 2:30 p.m. ET, which is when all the coverage will begin.
If you can’t make it in person, you can watch in the Lexington area on WKYT, WMYO in Louisville, via the WKYT stream above, or if that’s not working, the UKAthletics.com feed, which you can access by clicking the pic below:
It will also be broadcast on all the IMG radio affiliates across the state. You can see a list of affiliates here, or listen via WLAP.com or IHeartRadio beginning at 2 p.m. ET. Our own Ryan Lemond will anchor the coverage.