After 48 hours of fun and a white-knuckled flight home, I am back in Nashville. I’ve been on a lot of fun trips the past few years, but watching Kentucky beat down Duke in a city full of Cats fans definitely ranks high on the list. Add in two five-star commitments in a 24-hour span — three in six days if you count De’Aaron Fox — and this may go down as one of the better weeks of the Calipari Era, which is really saying something. Before I surrender to my Tempurpedic mattress, here are some thoughts on it all.
It was Tyler Ulis’ night
On a night most predicted would be Jamal or Skal’s coming out party, Tyler stole the spotlight. After splitting time with Andrew Harrison last season, Ulis showcased that he’s the captain now, turning in 18 points, 6 assists and 0 turnovers in 40 minutes (that’s right–he played the whole game). As a result, the rest of the world is finally catching on to how special he is and after the game, Coach K all but got down and worshipped at his feet. I don’t think he was just being gracious in defeat, either; Coach K seemed genuinely impressed by Ulis, calling him a winner with a heart five times bigger than most. We all know how great Tyler is, but sometimes it takes hearing it from somebody else — one of the most respected names in the sport, nonetheless — to fully appreciate it.
Beating Duke is the best
There’s just something special about Kentucky vs. Duke. College basketball doesn’t get more elite than it did during last night’s showdown of the defending national champions and the team that should have been the defending national champions. Two Hall of Fame coaches, a long and loaded history, enough five-stars to fill a galaxy, and fans who care more about the sport than anything else. Add in the United Center and a national audience and it was a BIG NIGHT, which is why it was so satisfying to see Kentucky step up to the plate and kick some ass. After a rocky start, the Cats ran circles around Duke, looking every bit the superior squad. After 1992, that will never get old. I’m not going to say beating Duke is more fun than beating Louisville, but after dealing with their fans all over Chicago, it might be 1A.
What Wisconsin game?
Okay, maybe that’s reaching a bit too far, but if last night’s win did anything for me, it exorcised last year’s demons. With every Tyler Ulis dish, Jamal Murray drive, or Marcus Lee dunk, I moved further past last season’s heartache. Gone are the flashbacks to that numb night in Indianapolis and the depressing drive home. In its place are no-look passes, dipsy-doos, lobs, and dunks. Only so many things can get a fanbase like the BBN off the floor after last season, but this team is fun enough to do it.
More fun to watch than last year?
Listen, few things will top last season. The Bahamas trip, seven NBA players, platoons, the Kansas and UCLA beatdowns, Willie’s slams, Karl, Devin, all of it was amazing. Kentucky didn’t just beat teams, they crushed them behind three seven-footers and an impenetrable defense. In terms of style, it wasn’t always the prettiest or most exciting basketball to watch; it’s certainly not as pretty or exciting as what’s happening on the court with this group. Last year, the Cats pounded teams with a sledgehammer; this year, they’re picking locks with precision. Sometimes it’s sloppy and yeah, they can definitely improve in the post, but give me that trio of scrappy guards over anyone. If it takes a loss or two to figure it out, so be it. As we learned, perfection can be overrated.
When Worldwide Wes wants the bar to stay open, it stays open
After watching the end of Michigan State/Kansas, we headed to the team hotel bar for a nightcap. The team has already left town, but plenty of movers and shakers were still there, making for some excellent people watching. Even though bars in Chicago don’t close until 2 a.m. or so, the staff at the bar called last call around midnight, which did not sit well with one Worldwide Wes. Wes and his well-dressed posse rolled in and, when they heard the bar was getting ready to close, took action.
“Let’s see if we can keep this party going,” Wes said, strolling up to the bar with resolve. Minutes later, servers started circulating again, as did Wes, who bought a round for every UK fan in the bar. All while talking on a beat up flip phone circa 1998.
A statement was made
What a week. In the past six days, Kentucky has landed three five-star recruits and beaten one of its arch rivals who just so happens to be the defending national champion. Duke was riding a wave of momentum into this season that had some pundits hitting send a little too early on their “Coach K is beating Calipari at his own game” columns (looking at you, Ian O’Connor).
Last night, Kentucky made a statement. Even though they didn’t win the title last year and lost seven players to the NBA, the Cats’ dominating win over Duke reminded the country that Kentucky is still the most important program in college basketball. This morning, Calipari’s newly-minted #1 recruiting class reminded everyone they’re likely to stay that way, too.