It’s been almost exactly 35 years since Rupp Arena opened its doors and welcomed in the Kentucky basketball program. Over the course of the 520 games played inside the arena since, there have been countless players that have stolen the show and captured the hearts of the most die-hard Kentucky fans. Monday night, the biggest name in the building was beer. The Kentucky Pros team was sponsored by Bud Light and fans were given the opportunity to purchase the beverage at Rupp Arena, pleasing at least the 150 or so people who have emailed us over the past few weeks asking that one simple question. I’m not saying that the beer is why the crowd was so fired up or why so many people were tweeting that the refs were hearing a few select word not fit for repeating, but I don’t think it hurt. Feel free to give it another run tonight in Louisville.
A few UK notes…
– Right from the start, it was clear that this wasn’t our typical exhibition game. If there was any chance that having Calipari on the bench was going to give the Dominican team and their familiar names a free pass from the Rupp Arena crowd, it dissolved the second they stepped on the court. Francisco Garcia and Edgar Sosa were booed passionately by the Lexington faithful and Al Horford got the same treatment, though he playfully responded with a Gator chomp. The Kentucky Pros team was welcomed like returning heroes and the spectacle created an NBA playoff-like atmosphere that, according to Calipari, blew veteran NBA coach Del Harris away. It was a big-time start to what turned out to be a very competitive game (more on that in a second) in front of a wild crowd. Let’s hope that type of energy from the start can be duplicated when the actual team takes the court this season.
– When the game was announced several weeks ago, it was billed to be more than just a way for Calipari’s national team to practice. Cal said he expected the Kentucky Pros to come out and play hard in front of the Rupp crowd and that’s exactly what he got. Though the defense was suspect for the most part (that tends to happen when teams are just thrown together), neither team was prepared to walk out of that arena with a loss. The Cats opened with Tayshaun Prince knocking down a pair of threes and Jodie Meeks getting one of his own and the competitive fire continued throughout. DeMarcus Cousins played nasty the entire game and battled anyone and everyone that came within elbow distance, including Sacramento teammate Francisco Garcia, who got a little toss from Boogie in the second half. Even when the Pros team was down by double digits, John Wall flashed back to that 2009-10 form and tried to will his team to victory. With both teams playing so hard, it made it easier for the crowd to stay involved in the game and made it a night to remember for the fans that were in attendance.
– I guess we should start by congratulating all University of Louisville fans, who are apparently treating a victory by John Calipari’s team as their greatest sporting accomplishment in recent memory. The game wasn’t even over yet when the trolls came to play in the comments section, ready to celebrate a pair of former Cards finally benefitting from decent coaching. In all seriousness, though, I’m not sure anyone should have expected a different outcome than what we saw Monday. The Dominican team is made up of professional players that have been together for two years and took on a team that got together the day before and was coached by an 82-year old man that retired 26 years ago. So why are you so excited about Calipari’s team winning? Because you’re little brother, that’s why.
– Even in defeat, having Joe B. Hall as a part of the event was simply fantastic. Getting the chance to serve as an honorary coach was a tremendous honor for Hall and having his close friend on his staff meant it was a great night for him to return to the sidelines. After the game, he joked that it was past his bedtime and worried that he’d be hung in effigy today across town for losing the game. It wasn’t too long ago that it looked like he would not be able to participate in these two exhibition games, but John Calipari found a way to make it happen and Hall’s presence was yet another reason why the night was so special to Kentucky fans.
– Joe B. Hall wasn’t the only person who felt honored by being welcomed back to Rupp Arena as the former UK players also lumped tons of praise on Coach Cal for setting up the game. Keith Bogans said he didn’t think he would ever get the chance to play on the Rupp Arena floor again and Tayshaun Prince summed it up by saying, “Calipari is special. He’s special in every sense of the word.” For all of the things Cal has done to create a bright future and formidable present for Kentucky basketball, his appreciation of the history and willingness to embrace it has been fantastic. Only a handful of schools have the following and former players to consider putting something like this together, but none of them have Calipari. Like Prince said, he’s special.
– There’s still one more game to go in the exhibition series, but the postgame attention already turned to whether or not this type of thing should become an annual affair. Nearly all of the players involved were directly quoted as saying they’d love to participate in an annual alumni game and given the success of Monday night’s display in Lexington, that possibility seems real. Just imagine that instead of eight former UK players returning, there were 16-20 former Cats taking the floor and giving some big time basketball for the Wildcat faithful. It might be harder to do contractually and logistically when there’s not an NBA lockout taking place, but there’s at least a chance that it could happen again in the future.
– At this point, it appears that Eloy Vargas is going to be spending the summer in Lexington with his college teammates. John Calipari said a few weeks ago that Eloy would not make the trip unless he was able to crack the rotation and give minutes and he did not do that Monday. Even with Charlie Villanueva out of the game with an injury, Eloy didn’t enter the game until there was less than a minute and a half left on the clock and got welcomed in a very rude way by DeMarcus Cousins. He might get an extended opportunity Tuesday in Lexington, but as of now, it looks like it’s going to be a Lexington summer for Eloy. And considering the Cats have big plans for this season and Eloy could become a factor in those plans, that might not be a bad thing for him or the team.
– His 29 points will probably be the headline, but Edgar Sosa also had nine fouls. It was an unfortunate line for Sosa and the fans at Rupp, who were eligible for a free Papa John’s topping if he reached ten. Keep trying, Edgar. There’s always Tuesday.
That’s it for now. Make sure you stick around all day as we recap an incredible evening at Rupp and get you all geared up for round two in Louisville. As is the usual, Matt Jones will get things going with Kentucky Sports Radio at 10 am on Talk Radio 1080. We’ll try not to mess it up from there. See you in a few…