photo by Regina Rickert
Do you want to be extremely happy? I want you to be happy because I feel like everything is better when your mood is cheerful. And for the past month, if your happiness was solely dependent on the state of your favorite college sports team (which I hope it is not), then you might have not been that happy. The past 30 days or so have been trying for the Big Blue Nation as we watched our basketball season collapse, while also seeing unprecedented success for our uncultured vagrant cousins down the road. But the tide has shifted, and the last days have definitely seen a movement in our collective moods. Saturday night at the UK Spring Game was a cathartic celebration for Kentucky fans everywhere and it led me to start this week with Seven Reasons (Five Football and Two Basketball) Why You Should be Very Excited:
1. Fan Turnout at Spring Game was Amazing:
I know everyone has said it, but it bears repeating. What we saw Saturday night at the Spring Game was as powerful a step towards making UK football relevant as we have seen in a long time. Kentucky fans showed up, and not only did they show up, they came ready to party and celebrate a new era in a long dormant product. The 51,000 people who showed up (and yes this was the official attendance listed by UK, but I don’t think it was much of, if at all, an exaggeration) signaled that when it comes to the Kentucky football fan base, we are ALL IN. I stood on the field with a number of former players, including Tim Couch, Andre Woodson and Dicky Lyons and to a man they simply repeated, “I can’t believe this is happening.” The excitement was palpable before the game, when our preview show was rowdier than any from last season as fans celebrated a long-awaited return to relevancy. Spring games are by their very nature, less than exciting, but for the fans there it wasn’t the point. They wanted to make a statement that UK football mattered and that optimism was in the air and the 51,000 people there did that. It was the SECOND LARGEST CROWD IN AMERICA FOR A SPRING GAME THIS YEAR…behind only Nebraska. Read that sentence again and soak it in. And while you are at it, look at the pictures comparing this season’s Spring Game and last season’s. It definitely is a new era:
2. The Coaches Inspire Confidence:
You know how when John Calipari says something, you are almost certain it will happen? Well for me, when UK football coaches in the past have spoken, I have unfortunately almost felt the exact opposite. It culminated last Media Day, when Joker Phillips admonished me for not believing his team could win six games, and then subsequently costing me money when they won only two. But this group is different. When Mark Stoops speaks, I feel the quiet confidence that makes me think, “yes…this time it can happen.” Neil Brown and DJ Eliot have a look in their eyes that suggest, “just wait and see, we are going to surprise some people.” And the bounce in the step of every coach on the staff, leading to an energy from the players that was non-existent most of last year, makes me believe that a change is going to occur. Here is how much faith I have in the Stoops group. I honestly believe, if this group can’t do it here, it simply can’t be done. But I think it will be done and we got a great one.
Stoops posed for pictures with fans at Keeneland last weekend. We were told he was great with the many folks who approached him to wish good luck
3. The Recruits Are Noticing
It is going to be a big week in UK football recruiting. Two Four star players from Ohio are making a joint announcement this week and the smart money is on the Cats (both visited this weekend). But more importantly, there is a sense coming around the recruiting world that Stoops is going to get it done and make a huge change. A person who follows that world closely told me Saturday night, “Kentucky is quickly becoming the #2 school in Ohio for recruits (behind Ohio State)…if that continues, watch out.” Ohio is going to be THE fertile ground for Stoops and company and if they lock it up, as they are doing, we will see things here that we have never seen. As Zadarius Smith told me after the game on Saturday night, “The coaches here make you believe…you hear it when they talk. That is why I came here and a bunch of other guys will too.”
Photo by Regina Rickert
4. Speaking of Zadarius, He is a GAM
If you were at the game Saturday, one guy stood out more than any other. #94 Za’Darius Smith is the kind of player we don’t see much in these parts. He is a physical specimen that knows the fundamentals of line play and gets to the Quarterback almost at will. If the QBs could have been hit during the Spring Game, they may have been hurt, as Smith dominated the game during his playing time. Watching Smith play makes one believe he could be a future All-SEC guy as he showcases an athleticism that simply has not been a part of this program in some time. I spoke with him after the game and noted that he is also a great talker, who truly is thrilled to be in Lexington. He said, “I have never played before this many people in my life. These have to be the greatest fans in the world. I just can’t wait till this season.” Based on what we saw Saturday, we can’t either.
5. Jalen Whitlow Looks Really Good
The other huge takeaway from Saturday night was the slight surprise of seeing Jalen Whitlow emerge as the potential leader at the Quarterback battle. We had been hearing whispers all Spring that Whitlow was moving up and may have even had the best camp of any of the three guys. But those whispers turned into roars on Saturday, as Whitlow by far shined the brightest of the three quarterbacks. He was able to run at will (and was hurt more than the others by the inability to break tackles on scrambles due to the “touch” rule), but more importantly, showcased a significantly improved arm in the process. Every drive he led was efficient and he was the only player who consistently moved the football. You don’t base a starter on one Spring Game, but if you did, Whitlow would be the guy. And that means that with the confidence I already have in Max Smith and the potential of Patrick Towles, UK has a lot of options at the Quarterback position, which will clearly be one of this team’s strengths.
6. Andrew Wiggins Gave a Good Quote
As with every big recruitment, I think some fans are becoming a bit fatigued with all things Andrew Wiggins. But with that said, his performance at the Jordan Game, led to a quote that should make UK fans feel better. He said that the three most important qualities he is looking for with his decision are “coaching style, great facilities and great talent I can surround myself with.” Now if he really means this, how could the choice be anyone but Kentucky? The coaching style of Calipari, the facilities at UK and the talent at UK, are simply better than the other choices for a future NBAer. You could make a case for Kansas and North Carolina on the first two (if you so chose), but on the third, UK far outweighs everyone. And if these are the three criteria, Florida State shouldn’t even be in the conversation. Bottom line…if you want to feel good about Kentucky’s chances, you like this quote. But with that said, none of us still have any idea what he will do.
7. The Guys We Have Continue to Impress:
Julius Randle was the MVP of the Jordan Game and looked dominant. James Young has been scoring at will, the Twins are dishing assists left and right, Marcus Lee is hitting the glass and Dakari Johnson may have been the biggest surprise of the All Star circuit so far. Add in Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis (both of whom will be playing in the KENTUCKY DERBY CLASSIC this weekend in Louisville…you should check it out for sure), and you have a ton of reasons to be excited about the future. What is amazing about this group, especially when combined with Poythress, Cauley-Stein and Wiltjer, is that they will make up a core of guys who not only will excel next year, but their talent is so varied that a number will simply have to return the next year. That essentially means that you have created a monster team for two years, before even starting 2014 recruiting (where UK is situated very well). In short, the train is still rolling and next year is going to be unbelievably special.
So all of that should help get this April week off to a rollicking start. Like “El Pato”, Angel Cabrera, we should be able to smile no matter what happens and recognize that life is great. We are Kentucky and you are not…a line that sounds arrogant, but is also true. Fun lies ahead.