Last week, I was on a radio show in Omaha, Nebraska talking about this UK team and one of the hosts asked me a rather basic seeming question: “Are Kentucky fans more into this team than others of the past and if so, why?” I thought about it for a second and then suggested that this could be the most passionate I have seen UK fans about a team since the Unforgettables. That opinion probably isn’t unanimous, as we have seen a number of teams be embraced fully. The 96 group was idolized for their dominance, the 98 group for their ability to comeback from the brink, the 03 group for their teamwork, the 10 group for their rock stardom, the 12 group for their return to title glory and the 14 group of their postseason moments. But this team has something else. This team isn’t just celebrated for their amazing run to 38-0 and the quest to make history. We love this team because of something else that is more difficult to quantify. This team is just special.
Today in the Herald Leader, John Clay wrote a great column suggesting that fans should really take a moment to enjoy the last couple of games with this group. He is exactly right. After this weekend, we will never see these players together on the same floor. Karl, Willie and the Twins are almost certainly gone and it is likely that 1-3 others will make the jump to the NBA with them. Of course we are used to a mass of players leaving the program early every season in the Calipari era, but when this pack departs, it will mean a little more. In some ways, this is the closest to a group of beloved Seniors that we have seen since Calipari has been at Kentucky. Willie and the Twins may be a Junior and Sophomores respectively, but they feel as if they have been around a lot longer. Add in the fact that we watched the team through a long postseason run last year, a Summer trip to the Bahamas this year and now the tension of every game mattering during a quest for perfection and you get a team that feels like it has been with us much longer.
But even more so than the sheer longevity of our time watching them or their greatness on the court, this team is special because of the quality of the players on it. In my ten years of being around UK basketball in some form, this is by far the best group of young men that I have seen wear the uniform. If any one of these guys were to date your sister, you wouldn’t mind because you would know they would treat her well and likely would also be fun at holidays. Willie Cauley-Stein is as interesting a college basketball player as you will ever see, with interests that span far beyond the basketball court. The Harrison Twins are reserved kids with big hearts, who have overcome outsized and unnecessary criticism to rise to the top of college basketball together. Karl-Anthony Towns is so nice that at times he doesn’t even seem real, always looking to brighten the days of others no matter their status in life and doing so with a perpetual smile on his face. Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee are big-hearted Sophomores who reach out into the community and have given more to the city of Lexington off the court than they even have on. Alex Poythress was as loved as any player on the roster, and after his early season injury, his status in Big Blue Nation has only risen as fans clamor to see him return again and overcome his unfortunate adversity. And the Freshman, Devin Booker, Tyler Ulis and Trey Lyles have had the burden of the UK spotlight lessened by the veterans, but have still risen to the stature of the uniform with great play and ever-improving skill. Throw in two Kentucky kids who love representing the state (Hawkins and Willis), a California leaper who brings together the social aspect of the team while also killing them with his athleticism (EJ Floreal) and a group of walk-ons that have become cult figures (Long, Malone and Lanter) and you have a group that is almost perfect in its makeup.
Now here this group sits on the precipice of history. An idea that was hatched by fans two years ago (40-0), crushed after the first difficult challenge, dismissed when brought up for a second go-around and then rekindled after the enormity of this team’s potential was fully comprehended, is now before us only two games away. If it is reached, this team vaults into college basketball royalty, going down as one of the best groups to ever put on a uniform. But even if the unthinkable happens and Kentucky falls to either Wisconsin, Duke or Michigan State this weekend, the pride the Big Blue Nation has in this group will not dissipate. This has been an unbelievably special ride, one that has been magnified due to the daily tension of staying perfect, but also enriched by a group that has not only embraced the challenge of history, but has made the fan base proud by their daily demeanor. There will be other great teams in the future and as long as Calipari is in Lexington, the pursuit of titles will never end. But there will never be another team like this, spectacular in their performance, but equally as impressive in their makeup. Enjoy this weekend. These are the glory days of UK fandom.