Big Blue Nation has been a sad place to reside in the past couple of weeks. Now don’t get me wrong, the entirety of the season has been a bit of a bummer, with fans hoping for a magic traveling circus of ass-kickings and instead receiving a never-ending helping of tedious corporate training sessions. Each game has been hard to watch and at no point has it felt like the team has ever really “hit its stride.” The possible “turn the corner” performances have been many, (Louisville, Arkansas comeback attempt, at Missouri, at Ole Miss, the Randle game winner vs LSU) but at no point has the team come anywhere close to finding its groove. However we continued to have hope that the moment was quickly approaching when all the hype would become reality and UK would be a monster. It was only a matter of time.
Well somewhere between the last minute of the Arkansas loss at Rupp and Calipari getting tossed in Columbia, a large part of the fan base finally gave up. While some members of the BBN continue to hope for a final postseason miracle turnaround (and I do respect those folks and their dedication), it is clear that for many/most fans the belief in the magic of the 2014 team has completely disappeared. For a while, this disappointment manifested itself in anger. Message boards, comment sections, KSR Radio and more showcased a fan base baffled by the team’s complete inability to win against even the bottom feeders of the SEC. While some (maybe a lot) of the anger was over the top (with a few lost souls even wanting to get rid of Calipari), it still showcased a group of fans who cared and wanted to let off steam from a year that had been so greatly anticipated. The anger bothered me, especially when directed at the players, but the sentiment behind it is something that makes this fan base so special. We really care about this team and the program, and this time of year, which sometimes has the feel like a month-long state holiday in Kentucky, has been ruined for two years in a row. This can’t help but hurt and expressing that pain makes perfect sense to me.
But now as we get ready for SEC Tournament week, a time that is usually the UK fan base’s time to be at its absolute best, a feeling is creeping in that is even worse than anger. I get the sense that a significant portion of the Big Blue Nation has now turned off the season completely and has become apathetic. What is usually Cats’ fans best quality, a dedication to the program and its successes/failures through thick and thin, now seems to be waning this March in ways that while not without precedent, are extremely rare. This apathy is manifesting itself through all types of fan behavior. For the first time that I can ever remember, UK announced last week that it still had SEC Tournament ticket books for sale thanks to cancellations in the last two weeks. Think about that for a minute…the SEC Tournament tickets, once so hot a commodity that fans would buy SEASON TICKETS from other schools to be able to buy them at the end of the season, now aren’t even sold out in Lexington. Even just two years ago, that would have been unfathomable. It showcases itself in everything from web traffic, to twitter Retweets to radio show calls, all of which have seen a small downturn from normal numbers in the last 10 days. I am told by a retail source that sales of UK gear are “as low as I can remember” for this time of year. I can’t get over how many people have said to me, just in the last few days, that they have given up on the season and are either not going to the Tournament or making other plans during these March weekends. Even last year, with all the team’s struggles, UK beat Florida in the final game of the regular season and Nashville was rocking before the Cats threw up a stinker versus Vandy in the SEC Tournament. This year just feels different. What was once a time to be the Bluest of Blue is this year, just another option on the entertainment schedule.
I expect we will see the lowest Kentucky attendance at the SEC Tournament since Gillispie’s swan song in Tampa (a truly depressing affair). Many regulars of SEC Tournament trips for years are bowing out, thinking there is no chance for a positive outcome. While the KSR crew is still making the journey (with 14 people, our largest group ever), I expect less Blue, at least on Friday, than at any point in my memory. It will still be a majority Kentucky contingent and if you go, the most fun you can have with fellow Kentucky fans…but it will be slightly different. If you ever wanted to go to a SEC Tournament and were worried about tickets or expenses, this is the year to go.
The effect is also showcasing itself on conversation about next year’s team. Hype, which is something the BBN has mastered for decades (no program in all of basketball, maybe all of sports, talks more about the future than we do), is at an all-time low for next year’s team. Even though the Cats will once again have the #1 or #2 recruiting class, fans are not nearly as energized about the future players. For understandable reasons, UK backers are taking a “wait and see” attitude that could make this a very boring Spring and Summer around Lexington. After two straight years of awful football and disappointing basketball, Kentucky fans want to see happiness and success before they get their hopes up again. The fun of anticipation has been sucked out of Lexington, at least for the foreseeable future.
All of this can of course change on a dime. Win the SEC Tournament and most of Big Blue Nation will be “all in” when the brackets come out. If the Cats make the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, I know that the Regional will be filled with Blue as fans think the light has turned on and we all get set up for what Aaron Harrison called “a great comeback story.” But until that happens, the feeling around here is not a good one. Kentucky fandom is, as of today, really depressing. While there is no place better when it is going well, and no place angrier when it is going badly, the feeling that exists now may be the worst of all. BBN with apathy is no good whatsoever and all I can hope is that whatever happens in Atlanta this week, it will be enough to get rid of this foreign, painful feeling.