The above photo was on a KSR readers’ Facebook profile. I am sure it came from one of the media outlets there today…to whichever did it, kudos. (update…photo is from The Cats Pause
There are certain times when you walk away from an event thinking to yourself, “I might end up remembering today for awhile.” I had that thought this evening, because after leaving the Craft Center on Photo Day, it became clear to me that this season’s Kentucky team is going to be unbelievably good. Explaining why can be difficult. But when you are around the potential of greatness, you can feel it. During my time at Duke, I would wander in and watch the Williams-Battier-Boozer teams practice, and you could just sense how great they could be. Similarly, I was in Chapel Hill during the May-Felton-Williams UNC championship team and there was a swagger that followed everything they did. I am not saying this team will win the title, but it this group has that same feel…they seem on another level, an experience I havent had in this (now my fifth) year covering the team.
There were a lot of sights and tidbits from the day and you can read them below, but one bears mentioning at first. One cannot put into words the palpable change in atmosphere around the players and the program. Of all the various attributes about Gillispie that frustrated me, none were more difficult to accept than the way he sucked the energy out of the players and the program. The players were always tense, rarely smiled and seemed perpetually on edge, afraid to make a mistake. Not anymore. The group of guys I saw today were constantly laughing, joking and were as loose as is conceivably possible on a day most dread, photo day. Brett Dawson of the Courier Journal was there as well and mentioned to me that they almost seemed “goofy”, and I agreed. They cracked jokes on each other, those watching, the cameramen and seemed like a group having more than its share of fun. Whereas last year seemed like one neverending death march, this seems like a group ready to have a joyous run to the Final Four…and that excitement is contagious.
Some observations from the day….
— The person I was most interested in seeing today was the first one I ran into, Demarcus Cousins. I introduced myself and said I was from KentuckySportsRadio and he smiled and said, “oh yeah, I recognize you. I smile all the time now because of you guys.” He was unfailingly polite (calling me “sir”…which made me feel old), but also was in constant joke mode. He took pictures hanging from the rim, gave Eric Bledsoe a piggyback ride and had more fun with The Cats Pause’s “Harlem Globetrotter” shoot (which will look cool by the way) than almost anyone. I know we have read and heard discussed about Cousins’ potential attitude issues and maybe they are there. But unlike some with attitudes in the past, he has an outgoing and personable side….which is very good to see.
— Also interesting to me was Darnell Dodson. At first glance, you could look Dodson in the face and think he is Ramel Bradley…they are strikingly similar. While I only spoke to him for a second, I watched him shoot for a long time, and it was quite impressive. He has lights out touch and his three pointers barely move the net. I watched him make six straight threes at one point, three with his right hand and three with his left hand, and it wasnt clear which was his dominant method. One staff member told me, “he is the best shooter on the team and it isnt even close,” also later comparing him to Wesley Person. From what I saw today, the unknown member of the class will be well known during the season.
— It is striking how in shape Patrick Patterson and Daniel Orton have become. Patrick looks like a complete warrior. He is completely ripped and looked to not have an ounce of fat on him. He now has an NBA body and the change from this summer is noticeable. As for Daniel Orton, he looks almost like a different person. One person told me that he lost 40 pounds of fat and put on 20 pounds of muscle. I am not sure how that happens, but he has gone from slightly chubby, to almost too skinny. An amazing transformation.
— Speaking of body types, Eric Bledsoe has the potential for Kelenna-esque arms and biceps. I had never noticed before, but as the picture above shows, he has serious guns.
— Because today was picture day, the players got their normal gear out and 2 guys wore headbands, Cousins and Bledsoe. None looked like Wayne Chism yarmukles.
— Then there is John Wall. Folks enjoy him while he is here. The kid is personable, had a 4.0 during the summer and has a constant smile/laughter on his face. Plus he has that aura…he is going to be a star…one of the best to ever come from Kentucky and play in the NBA. Savor this year…there wont be many like him.
The entire atmosphere around UK basketball has changed dramatically in the last six months. You can feel it in the coaching staff that has embraced Twitter, Facebook and other forms of media to try and reach out and touch the fanbase. You can feel it in the fanbase, with the mantra “I cant wait till basketball season starts!” repeated over and over by Kentuckians I meet from all over the state. While I have felt that excitement, I still was holding back just a bit, likely because the bad dreams of the last two years plagued me. But no more. Being around that group today, you can just sense that something special is about to happen. The new coach, new players, Patrick Patterson, a rejuvenated UK staff, everything around the place is exciting and its infectious.
As I walked out of the gym, Demarcus Cousins came over to me and said, “make sure and tell everybody I smile.” I told him I would and then he said, “I just love this place man. I really do.” That feeling showed not only from him, but from all the guys around the program. They are ready to do something big and after the last six months of change and the excitement I saw today, I am ready for something big as well. This team is going to be special folks…strap yourselves in.