Do you remember where you were when the final buzzer sounded on the 2019-20 Kentucky basketball season? I sure do.
I was getting back from spring break, and let me tell you, the other passengers de-boarding from that 8-hour international flight were very confused to see an exhausted-looking college kid in a blue hoodie hooting and hollering in the customs line.
Granted, as I watched on my battery-depleted phone while E.J. Montgomery tipped in a shot to complete a seemingly impossible comeback against Florida, I didn’t think it would be the end. None of us did. For that brief moment, one week before the world shut down, all I knew was that this team was special.
Now, after two incredibly long months stuck at home with no sports on TV (thanks, coronavirus), we’ve all had some time to reflect on the season cut short. The full reality has finally sunk in, and it is bleak: not only did this Kentucky team lose their chance to earn a spot on the pantheon of March heroes, but thanks to a series of draft decisions, transfers, and one tear-filled graduation, they’re well and truly gone forever. As the months wear on, it’s becoming more likely that the legacy of this special group of players will be overshadowed by the fallout of “March Sadness”—and this breaks my heart.
With that said, I truly believe this year’s group of wildcats should be remembered as champions. Here are five reasons why.
1. They Had What It Took
If anyone who follows college basketball from outside of the Kentucky bubble happens to read this post (by the way, tell your friends!) they may be confused as to why I’m hurling such praise on a team that won 25 games in a mid-tier conference, spent most of the year hovering in the 10-15 range in the AP Poll, and lost a home game to the 9-23 Evansville Purple Aces. That would be a fair question.
However, I believe—and John Calipari agrees—that the 2019-20 ‘Cats were one of the most underrated teams in the nation.
Back in March, Aaron Torres called this season Calipari’s best coaching job. Naturally, we’re pretty biased sitting here in our blue Power-K pajamas. But let’s look at the facts: Not only did Kentucky rebound from the crushing Evansville defeat to win the SEC outright for the first time since 2017, but they had a knack for getting it together for big games (see: Michigan State, Louisville, Texas Tech and Auburn). They also finished 8-2 in true road games, including that remarkable come-from-behind victory in Gainesville pulled off with Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley absent. By the end of the year, like so many of Calipari’s teams, they were charging into the postseason with considerable momentum.
It’s hard to fly under the radar playing in Lexington, Kentucky, but if it’s ever been done it was this year. The 2020 Kentucky basketball team did a lot of winning, and they had what it took to win a lot more.
2. (Non) Positionless Basketball
If I had to characterize this team with one word, it would be chemistry. From late January onward, following the transfer of Kahlil Whitney, the remaining players established themselves across the board with what may have been the most well-defined roles of Calipari’s tenure.
Yes, every member of the shortened eight-man rotation had a role. And beyond the top four scorers (Quickley, Tyrese Maxey, Nick Richards and Hagans), those roles were even more clearly set. Off the bench, Nate Sestina and Johnny Juzang provided shot-making and improved defense. Keion Brooks Jr. brought versatility and a feel for the game on offense. Even Montgomery, much-maligned for his inconsistency over the last two seasons, settled into his part as a bringer of energy on both ends of the floor.
In an interview with SportsCenter shortly after the NCAA tournament was canceled (linked a few paragraphs up), Coach Cal said the team was “a group of guys that really liked each other” and that they didn’t have a bad practice all year. “The last teams that have done that for me,” he continued, “won the national title or were in the final game.”
Of course, Cal is notorious for hyperbole, and how much guys like each other is a difficult thing to statistically quantify. But from a purely fan perspective, I watched this team developed a cohesiveness on the court that I hadn’t seen in a long time.
3. We Watched Them Grow Up
This one might be a stretch, but for me, it means everything. One of the hardest things about the Calipari era (despite the abundant success) has been getting used to seeing the players we fall in love with the most move on to the pros after just one season. As a result, it feels 10 times as rewarding when we get to see one of the few who did stick around see their dedication translate into success.
The 2020 team, for all its challenges, personified the success story feeling more than any other.
By coming back for their sophomore seasons, Hagans and Montgomery went from frustrating projects to intermittent heroes. Quickley made the leap from a bit player on the 2019 squad to SEC Player of the Year. And Junior Nick Richards grew into one of the most dominant big men in the country, justifying every Kentucky fan’s long and exhausting investment in his career (and making Drew Franklin’s whole life) the moment he did THIS to Louisville.
It may seem unorthodox, but I’ll remember this group as one of the most lovable to ever wear the blue and white—and this is a big reason why.
4. This Could Be the Start of Something New
There’s no denying that the enduring memory of the 2020 season for everyone will be the cancelled postseason, and the societal chaos that followed. But with every new headline, it’s become more and more clear that even after this passes, nothing will ever be quite the same.
In many ways, it feels like college basketball has been building to this point, with mounting tensions on several fronts just waiting for something to prompt an explosion. Well, we got it. In April, it was reported that the NCAA is considering allowing a one-time immediate eligibility rule for transfers following this season’s abrupt finish. More recently, an AP report suggested that another vote on allowing name, image and likeness rights for student athletes may be imminent. And as for the ongoing pay-for-play litigation… Well, let’s be honest, that’s never going to end.
From a basketball standpoint, this may be a turning point for Calipari as well. He is currently faced with his greatest roster replacement challenge yet, with only one returning player who played in a game last season in Brooks.
Given the success in recent years led by second and third-year players (see: Richards, Quickley and P.J. Washington) as well as the growing pull of top recruits to the G-League and overseas (see: LaMelo Ball, Jalen Green), he may be forced to start bringing in more multi-year players. Whatever the future holds, we may well look back on this team as a last hurrah for the one-and-done heyday.
5. They Went Out on Top
Finally, the No. 1 reason why I will remember the 2020 Wildcats as champions: because they were. Okay, technically, no one was. But with no tournament to prove otherwise, who’s to say Kentucky wouldn’t have won it all?
Consider this: in the last 20 years, for all of UK’s postseason success, there have been only two seasons that ended with a win. You guessed it, 2012 and 2020. While Kentucky may not be able to raise a championship banner when everyone (hopefully) returns to Rupp Arena in the fall, the Cats went out with a bang. And that matters.
I can’t speak for the rest of Big Blue Nation, but when I think about the 2020 basketball season, that’s what I’m going to remember: standing in that airport, losing my mind over the ending of a regular season game more than 300 miles away. I’ll forget the long and bumpy road it took the team to get to that moment, just as I’ll forget the people staring at me because I looked like an idiot. But I’ll never forget that feeling.
That’s what I’m going to remember about the 2019-20 Kentucky basketball team. What about you?