Three years ago, Kentucky fans redefined ESPN’s College GameDay for men’s basketball. The ESPN crew rolled in like they always do early on Saturday morning. Digger Phelps matched his highlighter to his tie and then reminded himself quickly to try to mention Notre Dame at least 3 times. “I think I can. I think I can.” The stage was set and then the doors were opened. Kentucky fans literally poured themselves into Rupp Arena, nearly filling each and every one of the 23,000+ seats. Gameday’s always look flashy on the television screen each Saturday morning. Whichever lucky school is selected for the spotlight appears to show up in the masses, eagerly cheering anytime one of the hosts mentions their school. And on the contrary, booing and hissing anytime the hosts utter the rival school’s name. ESPN didn’t have to use any clever camera angles though while in Lexington to put on the appearance of a completely packed house. Digger didn’t have to work too hard to start awkward chants when the crowd got bored halfway through the rather lengthy show. Kentucky fans packed Rupp Arena and brought the electricity from start to finish, creating a buzz around the entire city leading up to and following the morning’s events. The biggest question for Kentucky fan’s that day wasn’t whether or not to make the early morning trip to Rupp Arena hours before the game, regardless of whether or not tickets for the actual game were in hand. The biggest question was which Kentucky player to propose marriage to on the poster you worked on for 2 hours the night before.
Last year we scoffed as Vanderbilt fans tried to recreate the magic on College GameDay when Kentucky rolled into town. Not only did we scoff at the notion that Vanderbilt was worthy of such an event, but we marched right in and made it as much our event as it was theirs. Kentucky fans from the Nashville area, as well as many from Lexington and surrounding areas who made the journey, congregated before the Gameday event and created yet another “Blue got in” moment in Memorial Gymnasium. When the Vanderbilt crowd failed to rise to the occasion in the spotlight moment, Kentucky fans ceased the opportunity and gleefully sang out chants of “Go Big Blue! Go Big Blue!”
Now three years later, College GameDay is finally headed back to Lexington, Kentucky. When the spectacle, perhaps even “circus” if you will, strolled into town in 2010– Kentucky fans were still riding the high from the “return to glory” created by the arrival of John Calipari and his star-studded recruiting class. Kentucky hadn’t had the limelight in a positive way in so long that Big Blue Nation was nearly overflowing with excitement for a chance to take the grand stage in front of the entire country again. “We are the best. We are going to do College GameDay better than anyone else has done it before.”
(This video gives me chills)
The mood is vastly different this time around. Gameday will be here in less than a week for the Missouri game on February 23rd. The initial excitement of the return, coupled with Kentucky’s first SEC showdown with the newest addition Missouri, had all the fixings of a big time event late in the season. Looking at it now, could the timing be any worse? Even though we’ve all had almost a week to digest the information, the news of losing Nerlens Noel to a season-ending ACL injury still stings. The echoes of his screams can still be heard, and the horrifying images from that evening are still etched in the forefront of our minds. The only positive distraction could have been an inspired performance yesterday to show that the team was ready to rally around the heartbreaking loss of Noel. Instead, the complete opposite occurred. The same problems that have plagued this team all season long were not only still present, but even seemed magnified in the absence of Noel. Regardless of Kentucky’s outcome on Wednesday night against Vanderbilt, the team will still be less than a week removed from one of the more brutal losses of the Calipari era– a 30-point knockout punch from Tennessee on the road.
Kentucky fans seem to be having trouble identifying with this struggling team– and that is not a criticism of the fan base either. This season has provided more than a few head-scratching (more volatile for others, perhaps) moments. Coming off of the despair of the Noel injury, and the poor performances as of late on the court— will Kentucky fans be ready to rally around the team on College GameDay? Will 22,000 people roll out of bed this coming Saturday to not only rally around the team, but also show off Kentucky basketball on the national stage?
In a way, could the timing be any worse? Maybe not. But I also wonder (in my most hopeful of mindsets)– could the timing be any better? This team, this season, this fan base… needs some kind of a spark. The end result of this season doesn’t appear to be headed toward smiles and laughter like we experienced last season. Maybe Saturday’s GameDay event can at the very least provide one last rallying cry by the fans and the team to come up swinging at least one time before the end of the season. A win could obviously propel Kentucky in the right direction for the home stretch of the season. The win could also provide a tiny glimmer of hope and a much, much-needed “marquee win” over a Missouri team that will make the NCAA tournament (barring something crazy happening). More so than just the game and outcome of the game itself, can the Gameday event and hoopla give a spark to this team and this fan base during a major low point? Maybe we need this. Maybe this Kentucky team needs this.
Again, I’m not sure whether or not the timing is the worst or just what we need. Kentucky could take the grand national stage and crumble like they did against Tennessee. It’s hard to imagine a much worse performance than that, but this one would have the attention of the entire basketball-watching country. On the other hand, if Kentucky could somehow muster the effort and energy to pull off the win on the big stage– some positive momentum for the final few games of the season could be gained.
College GameDay is coming in 6 days, whether we like it or not. In a best case scenario, I have a feeling that pride might just kick in for Kentucky fans. If nothing else, will the fans at least be eager to prove as always that we have the best fan base in the country, especially for moments like this?