If you are like me, this has been a rather difficult four days. In fact, if God were attempting to make life miserable for Kentucky fans, he would probably have created this exact scenario. A Kentucky team that is extremely talented and has loads of potential, starts to hit their stride, only to have the heart and soul of the team (and the best player) go down with a season ending knee injury. Most fans give up on the season, only to have the team get everyone’s hopes up again with two huge home wins (where the crowd was phenomenal) versus SEC rivals, only to lose again in an embarrassment at our favorite event (the SEC Tournament). Then, after being left out of the big dance, we play on national television in a highly rated game against a college no one knows existed, only to lose on a missed last second shot. Our season over, we then watch as our biggest rivals (Louisville, Indiana, Florida, Duke) become the tournament favorites and the evil Cardinals go so far as to run roughshod on teams in our home arena. It is a perfect storm of awfulness and one that would seem so painful as to only be created by a Hollywood script writer seeking to punish UK fans for their unadulterated joy at winning #8 last year. In fact, besides the Julius Randle commitment (which admittedly was huge and a potential title maker), this could be classified as one of the worst weeks ever.
BUT with all of that said, we are huge college basketball fans here in Kentucky. This is college basketball’s grandest time and there is no reason for us to spend the next two weeks in misery. Yes, it is likely that a team we do not like will win the title (unfortunately it looks more and more like it will be the Cardinals), but rather than living in pain and dread, it is time to make lemonade and spend the next two weeks thinking positive thoughts and focusing on the good. Here then are Five Positive areas of focus for UK fans in what is otherwise a Tournament of Misery:
1. Next Year Will be Sensational
Usually when fans in sports talk about “next year” it is the opiate of the masses in attempting to deal with what has gone wrong this year. Not this time. What will happen next season in Lexington is going to be special. Not only is Kentucky going to be crazy good, but they are also going to be UNBELIEVABLY FUN. Remember the first three years? Yes, the Cats won at an unbelievable rate and that winning certainly drove the great time we had watching Kentucky basketball. But there was also a great “traveling circus” feel to the team, bore in large part due to huge personalities and players who loved being a part of Kentucky basketball. The John Wall Dance, Demarcus Cousins asking people to call him, Eric Bledsoe getting sh*t right, Patrick Patterson’s wit, Brandon Knight’s intelligence, Deandre Liggins’ toughness, Jorts’ amazing story, Anthony Davis’s unibrow, MKG’s smile and intensity were all huge parts of making Kentucky basketball more than just what was happening on the court. UK during those first three years was an experience, and one you did not want to miss. That simply wasn’t the case this year for a variety of reasons…we tried with Uncle Julius, Justin Beiber, Nerlens’ Flat Top and BURRRR…but something was missing. That something arrives next year in the form of a team with players who have confidence, swagger and a willingness to embrace their role as target #1. The Harrison Twins “stone cold killer” personality, Julius Randle’s “Hollywood” mindset, Marcus Lee’s ferociousness will combine with Archie’s attack mode, Willie’s hipster development and more to produce a team that is not only great, but is also fun. Kentucky may or may not win the title next year (the Tournament always has some randomness) but they will without question be (a) the best team in America and (b) amazingly entertaining and fun to follow. That is worth looking forward to.
2. Florida Gulf Coast is the Best College Basketball Story in Years
I freely admit that my number one goal in this Tournament is to see Louisville (and secondarily Indiana) lose. Thus that has caused me to hope some teams win (such as Duke/Ohio State, etc) that normally I would pull against, as they represent the best chance for the Cards/Hoosiers to go down. But even that goal becomes secondary to cheering for this amazingly fun Florida Gulf Coast team. They play the game of basketball like you want to see it played, free, flowing and with complete joy. They throw lobs, shake people out of their shorts and celebrate like kids at the happiest moment of their life. Everything about their story is impressive. From the chicken dance they do after big plays:
To the fact that their Assistant Coach Michael Fly is a UK graduate:
To the absurd white boy manager gang signs in the locker room celebration (I love this picture)
To of course their coach, who is not only a self-made millionaire (after helping start a company), but is also married to this Maxim model:
They are the great American story, from style of play to their role as the first #15 seed to ever make the Sweet 16. If you can’t get behind this, you don’t have a pulse. Yes, they play Florida in the next round and the dream probably ends. But think about what it will mean to these guys to play Big Brother Florida in Cowboy Stadium next week as the nation watches on. #FGCU…it’s what college basketball is all about.
3. It’s Not Over for Andrew Wiggins
Andrew Wiggins is the best high school player I have seen since Lebron. That sentence is loaded, but for me, it is true. Two weeks ago I had all but given up on him coming to Kentucky. The sense I had from those in the know is that it was simply unlikely that in the end the trigger would be pulled and he would become a Cat. But now, the feeling has changed. All of a sudden, the thought of adding Andrew Wiggins to the current class (and producing what ESPN’s Chad Ford says would be the “greatest collection of talent in college basketball history”) is not out of the realm of possibility. Many of the same folks who told me that it simply wasn’t in the cards, now have a slight spring in their step as to the possibility of Wiggins becoming a Cat. Why? It’s hard to say. Wiggins keeps everything very close to the vest and I am not sure anyone really knows what he is thinking. But there is some reason that those around Lexington are more positive on the subject, and thus I am more positive as well. I still would suggest that the not getting Wiggins is more likely than getting him…but the Cats are in the game and have a very reasonable shot. And when you are talking about the best since King James, that can’t help but make you excited.
4. The UK Women Have a Real Shot at a Final Four
Basketball is not over for the Big Blue. After an initial struggle today, the UK women defeated Navy 61-41 to move to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Their next game in Queens will be against Dayton, a team with 31 wins and a pedigree that some consider underrated. As you know, this UK women’s team is fun to watch and they have built a program for the last few years for this moment. They are in a region with traditional power UCONN, but this is a Husky team that can be beat. The Cats have the players to get to the Regional Final and lay it all on the line for what could be the first ever Final Four bid in school history. Matthew Mitchell has done an absolutely phenomenal job, but it is often overlooked simply because of the juggernaut that Calipari has produced. But now in this down year on the men’s side, the womens’ team has a chance to make national headlines and galvanize the state over the next week or so. They play Tuesday night on ESPN2 and fans can look forward to a chance for the Big Blue to continue marching in a Tournament.
5. You can Legitimately Look Forward to UK Football
I can’t even express in words how impressed I am with this new UK football staff and the attitude that is sweeping the UK program. The vibe is different around Nutter and there is a belief in what can be accomplished that I think will make huge strides for UK football. The Spring game is upcoming, but more importantly, you can follow daily the changes around the FB staff and players after these Spring Practices. There is a new edge around everything from nutrition to the videos that have been utilized by the marketing staff. Putting mics on the coaches, players and everyone involved (such as the video below with the DL coach Jimmy Brumbaugh) makes a “reality show” feel to this team that can get you excited about next season. Forget the realism of the task ahead (Phil Steele says UK has the hardest schedule in America next year) and get swept up in the excitement. UK football is going to improve and you should be interested.
Things aren’t perfect…these next two weeks are going to be tough, especially if the axis of evil in Louisville and Bloomington keep a path to meeting each other in the finals. But we can persevere and the future is bright. So stay positive, listen to KSR radio (10 am to noon…it is good for your soul) and remember, a bad day as a UK fan is better than any day in Red.