From KSR College’s Jack Heyburn
Over the past 3 years seemingly every big win, signing, or even big play has led to an announcer, or sometimes just a friend, to declare “Kentucky is back.” It could be the announcement of John Calipari as head coach, John Wall’s game winner against Miami of Ohio, or Michael Kidd-Gilchrists’ verbal commitment on ESPNU. One thing is certain, though, no team has ever “left” so few times yet been “back” so many. Assuming that we can all agree that at the end of the Billy Gillispie era Kentucky Basketball was off the map, when did we officially come back? Here’s my top 5 “Kentucky is back” moments.
5. 2009, John Calipari Announced as Head Coach
Before he even coached a game at Kentucky there were those who said Kentucky was back. Granted, most of these people were fans, and one of them was me, but the feeling was out there nonetheless. Before Calipari had been coach for a day, we knew about his talents as a recruiter, and we knew about the guy’s he had committed to Memphis and who else he was going after. On that first day I started mentally piecing together our recruiting class from Calipari’s commits and recruits and for the first time in several years I knew Kentucky basketball was going to be good.
4. 2011, Indiana beats Undefeated and #1 Ranked Kentucky
The other four moments are accompanied by a video or photo. Not this one. You know what happened. However, the fact that I can’t bring myself to put that video on this site is partly why this moment is so important. Everything about this game screamed “Kentucky is back.” Indiana fans packed the house. They talked trash all week. They made those clichÃ© “Beat Kentucky” shirts and they created, by most accounts, one of the most hostile sports environments Kentucky fans have ever seen. And when they won, the court was so packed with fans our players could hardly walk off. It wasn’t too long ago when Kentucky fans were having legitimate discussions about whether or not the court at Rupp Arena should ever be rushed. Now, the situation is completely reversed. When we get beat on the road opposing fans rush their court and ESPN makes it into a commercial that they play on a loop. We would get that sort of treatment of we weren’t “back.”
3. NCAA tournament run
I’m lumping the entire 2011 tournament into one moment for two reasons; 1. There are so many great moments that it’s hard to choose just one, and 2. I was so caught up in this tournament that it felt like one moment. From Knight’s game winner over Princeton, to his second game winner over Ohio State, and the North Carolina game that sent us back to the final four, this tournament was full of excitement. This moment showed we were back not just because it resulted in a final four appearance, but also because of the excitement it generated.
2. 2012, National Championship Win Over Kansas
This is the last possible moment to consider Kentucky being back. Until this moment, no matter what we accomplished, our detractors could always point out that we hadn’t gotten a national championship. This put an end to any speculation. At this moment we were just getting the recruits, we weren’t just getting celebrity drop-ins from Lebron James or Drake, and we weren’t just dominating the headlines of college basketball. We finally won our 8th national championship, and that’s as far back as you can get.
1. 2009, Kentucky Beats North Carolina at Rupp Arena
For me, personally, this is when I knew we were back. In fact, I can pinpoint the exact moment in the game when I knew we were back. Kentucky was down 9-2 early in the game. John Wall rebounded a missed shot and took off. At our own free throw line he crossed over to his right and exploded for a two-handed dunk. That was the start of a 13-0 run, and the first BIG win at Rupp in years. That game confirmed that Calipari’s freshmen could play with the best in the nation. But what really made that game special was the crowd. 24,000 fans all exuded pure, high level excitement. Not we-need-to-beat-LSU-to-get-off-the-bubble excitement, but excitement that showed that Kentucky basketball was back and here to stay.