On Saturday afternoon, I sat down and wrote an entire post about how no matter what happened vs. North Carolina, this season was a success to me. I had just walked out of the best press conference of the season, in which the team was loose, happy, and downright lovable. Not only had Kentucky just beaten UCLA to avenge December’s loss, they did it in convincing fashion, with De’Aaron Fox getting the best of Lonzo Ball (and his dad) and Malik Monk finding his three-point shot. The North Carolina game loomed, but watching this team transform into the one we’ve all been waiting for was enough for me. I saved that post as a draft, content to just get it off my chest, and went into yesterday with an open mind, ready to accept whatever outcome the basketball gods had in store.
And then the game happened. The funny thing about the loss is that I don’t think I would be as upset today had the Cats lost by ten, like it seemed they might in the first half. For most of the game, I never really thought Kentucky would win. In the first half, the Cats got hosed by the officials but the Tar Heels missed plenty of shots, making just enough mistakes to let Kentucky hang around. When Kentucky made its rally in the second half, my heart lurched and all that “no regrets” stuff went out the window. I had prepared myself for a loss, but here came Isaac Humphries of all people, making me believe again. When UNC went up by seven with a minute left, I once again braced myself for the worst, only for De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk to drag my heart back into it. After Monk’s three to tie it with nine seconds left, I had just talked myself into this being the greatest story of all time when Maye wrote the sad final chapter six seconds later. Game over. Season over.
So, is this season still a success? It’s hard to see in the bleak light of the morning after, but I still believe so. Yes, had the Cats beaten the Heels, the path to the national championship was wide open and ready for the taking; however, North Carolina was the best team left besides Kentucky and there is no shame in losing to them. Plus, you have to appreciate how far this team came. Remember how bleak things looked in late January? Kentucky lost three games in a two-week span, bringing Cal’s haters out of the woodwork; however, while the BBN braced itself for what could be another short March, the team quietly went to work. Hampered by illness and injury, De’Aaron Fox slowly returned to form. In the shadow of bigs like Anthony Davis and Karl Towns, Bam Adebayo became a consistent force down low. When Malik Monk’s shot failed him, he discovered other ways to contribute. Seniors Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis shed their bench status and became clutch contributors, unwilling to waste another second of their final days in blue and white. As college basketball focused on Duke, North Carolina, and the almighty ACC, the Cats steeled themselves for battle with ugly win after ugly win in the SEC, in retrospect, an underrated feat. For once, everyone was sleeping on Kentucky, including a good portion of its own fanbase.
And then came the postseason, a wild seven-game ride in which all the parts started coming together at just the right time. With the clock running down, this group transformed, barreling into the tournament like De’Aaron Fox towards the basket, picking up confidence with each game. With increased media opportunities came more glimpses into this squad’s personality, which, at times, had been hard to pinpoint. The fact that many fans had a hard time falling in love with this team for so long isn’t the team’s fault at all; over the years, Kentucky fans have become increasingly spoiled by players whose on the court talent was matched by their off the court personality. John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Willie Cauley-Stein, Karl Towns, and Tyler Ulis come to mind as players who have won the BBN over with their personalities, and maybe it’s because of the fanbase’s intense emotional attachment to the 2015 team and Ulis that it took a while to fall for this group. This team is full of great kids, but man, what a hard act to follow.
Yet, as the season inched closer to midnight, this group started talking and the BBN listened. Monk was the player who, no matter how much he struggled, you could count on to make a big shot; Fox, the fearless, confident leader; Bam, the lovable and hard-working big; Briscoe, the bulldog. And then there are the seniors, the heart and soul of the whole bunch. Years from now, people will probably mention Fox and Monk first when talking about this team, but you’re never going to convince me that Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis aren’t the reason everything came together at the end. How special was it that two Kentucky kids played above themselves to help a group of freshmen gel?
Fittingly, in the end, this team won fans over not because of one player, but because of their bond. I’ll always remember three moments with them: the bench sprinting out to meet Dominique Hawkins after one of many huge plays in the SEC Tournament; the starters cutting up and laughing at the podium on Saturday; and Bam and De’Aaron clutching each other as they sobbed last night. As Fox said, that was a locker room that cared, not just about the glory, but about each other, and seeing it come to such a painful end was shattering.
So, where will this group land in terms of legacy? This is subjective, so everyone will have a different answer, but for me, the 2012, 2015, and 2010 teams will always be at the top in the Calipari era. Even though only one won a national championship, all three teams were just special. From there, I’d go with the 2014 team because that run felt like destiny and taught us never to give up. I keep waffling on whether this team or the 2011 team comes next, but I think we can all agree that 2016 and 2013 round out the eight seasons. Had Luke Maye missed that shot and Kentucky gone on to win in overtime, would the 2017 team rank higher? Probably. But like I said last night, that’s the cruelest part of all of this: just as this team was really coming into its own, it was over. The videos of the players crying in the locker room were doubly as heartbreaking because you realized just how much this team cares. The fact that had they won, the path to the title was so wide open is just salt in the wound. Right now, it all feels like a journey cut short, a dream never fully realized, destined to lie behind the hazy curtain of “what if.”
…But, for 40 or so hours this weekend, it felt right. Life again on scorched Earth. And for this fan, that counts for something.