The 2015-2016 has begun, and to get you prepared for what’s coming over the next five months, Kentucky Sports Radio has decided to first take you back to the season that began it all.
That’s right, there’s a new book out that you’ve hopefully heard about by now, on John Calipari’s first team in Lexington, and we’ve got a special treat for readers of this website.
The book is called “One and Fun: A Behind the Scenes Look at John Calipari and the 2010 Kentucky Wildcats” and it really does take fans behind the scenes of the incredible 2010 season. From the day John Calipari was hired, through the recruitment of John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and the first freshman class under Cal, to games against North Carolina and UConn, a million-dollar fundraiser, and of course the night at the 2010 NBA Draft where UK set a record with five first round draft picks, author Aaron Torres covers it all. The book has received five-star reviews across the board on Amazon, and will make a perfect holiday gift for the UK fan in your life. It is available in paperback and Kindle, and for more information, signed copies and excerpts, you can visit KentuckyBasketballBook.com as well.
Aaron has done quite a bit of promotion for the book, starting on KSR last month, before Matt was nice enough to let him run a few excerpts from the book on the site this month. A couple weeks ago we ran an excerpt from the famed “Call Me” game followed it up with UK’s trip to Madison Square Garden to take on UConn, before sharing the story behind the John Wall Dance last week.
Well in the lead-up to the Wildcats’ first big showdown of the 2016 season next week against Duke, we decided to take you back to the first showdown of the entire Calipari era, when Kentucky hosted defending champion North Carolina back in 2009.
This will probably be the final excerpt we run at KSR, so be sure to sign up for the mailing list at KentuckyBasketballBook.com for special details and discounts towards the holiday season. Also follow the book on Facebook and Twitter, as there will be a special giveaway prior to the Duke game on Tuesday.
But first, here’s the story of that epic showdown, with North Carolina back during the 2009-2010 season.
It was a game that set the tone for the season ahead, and where one freshman became a bona-fide, national star.
Amongst all the questionable decisions in the history of modern college basketball, there is one that stands above the rest on the “Man, what was he thinking?” scale. And for those wondering, no, it has nothing to do with Coach K still trying to convince us that he has perfect, jet-black hair after all these years.
Instead it came in the summer, fall and winter of 2008, when John Wall was the No. 1 ranked high school player in the country, living in North Carolina, and yet for some strange reason, the University of North Carolina never seriously recruited him. Sure they showed some interest, but while schools like Memphis (and later Kentucky), Duke, Baylor, and pretty much everyone in the country rolled out the red carpet for Wall, the Tar Heels’ coaching staff showed him more of a ‘Meh’ attitude.
If Wall wanted to come play for them, fine. If not, they felt like they were fine without him.
“I went up there my junior year but they didn’t want to offer me,” Wall said. “(When they did) they wanted me to commit on the spot. I was like ‘I don’t want to commit on the spot. If you think I’m good enough, offer me (on my own terms).’ But they didn’t.”
Eventually North Carolina did come around towards the end of Wall’s senior year, but by then it was too late. He was the undisputed top player in the country by that point, and virtually every school in the country had put in a year’s worth of recruiting work to get him. Wall never seriously considered the Tar Heels, choosing Kentucky over Duke and everyone else in May of 2009. As they say “the rest is history.”
And it was that history which was on Wall’s mind in early December 2009. The Wildcats were back in the United States, and following their Cancun Challenge win and another against UNC-Asheville, they would then face their toughest challenge to date: On the first Saturday in December, the Wildcats would host North Carolina in front of a national television audience on CBS. The Tar Heels were the No. 10 ranked team in the country, and the defending champs.
And John Wall was ready for them.
“That North Carolina game that was the one John wanted,” fellow freshman Jon Hood said. “John wanted that one bad. For whatever reason, he wanted that one more than any other one.”
Wall didn’t hide his emotions either.
“I was so hype,” he told FoxSports.com in February 2015. Even five years later, he hadn’t forgotten just how much the game meant to him.
And really, it wasn’t just Wall who wanted North Carolina, but the entire Kentucky team, and frankly, the entire state as well. The Wildcats had given the fans everything they could’ve hoped for in their 7-0 start to the season, but nationally they were still yearning for respect. The narrative still seemed to be “Yeah, Kentucky is good, but wait until they play a real team. We’ll find out just how good they are then.”
That was the prevailing narrative, and also why the game was so damn important to the program. The questions that had plagued Kentucky since the day John Calipari had been hired would finally be answered. How good were the freshmen? And could they hang with a tough, more experienced team like Carolina?
“North Carolina was also a Top 10 team,” team manager Chad Sanders remembered. “That was our first real test. That was the first chance to prove, ‘Are these guys all hype? Or can they come out and really play?’”
As America quickly found out, these young Wildcats could in fact play, even if things started off slowly when they fell behind 9-2. But then, just as Kentucky fell behind, just as the doubts grew louder, a funny thing happened.
Well, correction: John Wall happened.
Down by those seven points just three minutes into the game, Wall sensed his team needed a play, and went out and made one. Off a North Carolina miss Wall caught the rebound, and in a blur, beat just about everyone up court on the fast-break. The last defender was Larry Drew II, and after a quick dribble left, he crossed over to the right… and in the blink of an eye took off. He jumped from just inside the foul line, and threw down a spectacular slam dunk with two hands. Kentucky fans burst out into cheers, just as North Carolina’s players tried to figure out what had just happened to them.
But before they got the chance, Wall did it again.
On the very next possession the freshman point guard grabbed a loose ball, and again took off on a one-man fast-break. He started to the right, and cut to the left, but this time, North Carolina wasn’t going to be fooled. Right as Wall took off, two defenders met him in mid-air. From there, Wall’s natural instincts took over; he somehow (still in mid-air) slithered between the two of them, before ducking under the basket, and laying it in. It was one of the most acrobatic reverse layups anyone had ever seen, pretty much anywhere.
And Kentucky fans were beside themselves. Wall tumbled to the ground, just as Rupp Arena again exploded. The cheers got louder a few minutes later when the game broke for a timeout.
“If there has been a louder moment there,” Kentucky Sport Radio’s Matt Jones said, describing Rupp Arena, “I don’t know when it’s been.”
It was just four points, two simple buckets that don’t look like much in a box score. But on that day, they were so much more. The scoreboard showed the Wildcats still trailed 9-6, but that four-point swing might as well have been 100; the Wildcats had their swag, and from there, the floodgates opened. Darius Miller hit a floater in the lane. Patrick Patterson hit a running jump hook. Miller hit a three, then Miller stuffed home a fast-break dunk off a Wall pass. Sometime later, DeMarcus Cousins got in the mix, with an “and one” layup, and Darnell Dodson hit a couple of threes for good measure.
By the time it was all said and done, the Wildcats had gone on a 28-2 run (yes, you read that correctly, 28-2!!). A 9-2 deficit had turned into a 30-11 lead in the blink of an eye, as the Rupp Arena crowd went into a frenzy.
It all seemed too good to be true, but unfortunately for Kentucky, it was. Because just as the Wildcats went on that epic run, just as it seemed they were going to blow North Carolina right out of the gym and stake their claim as one of the best teams in college basketball, well…
“John Wall started cramping up,” DeWayne Peevy remembered.
That’s right, the early adrenaline had gotten to Wall, and by halftime he had to be given an IV as he battled dehydration. Wall was able to re-enter the game in the beginning stages of the second half, but by then, he simply wasn’t the same player. After scoring 13 points in the first half, Wall went scoreless for the first 14 minutes after intermission, and by that point North Carolina had whittled a 20 point lead down to just seven at 58-51. The Tar Heels would cut the lead to three at the under four timeout.
However the Wildcats had been resilient all year, and even on a national stage, in front of the entire college basketball world, they would display that resiliency against Carolina. Eric Bledsoe scored seven points in the final three minutes (including five free throws), as the Wildcats kept the Tar Heels at bay. A pair of foul shots by (who else) John Wall, gave Kentucky their final margin of victory at 68-63.
Eventually the final horn sounded and Rupp Arena exploded. Kentucky had improved to 8-0 but this win was different than any other that the Wildcats had picked up all year. Against a big-time opponent, on a big-time stage, in front of a big-time audience, Kentucky had not only won the game, but at times, dominated.
They had also put the college basketball world on notice: They could play with, and beat anyone in the country. Kentucky was for real.
“(It) was a moment of ‘we’re here,’” Jones said.
Kentucky could no longer be looked past, no longer be dismissed as a novelty or circus act, or a group of talented individuals that weren’t truly a “team.” The Wildcats had just beaten a Top 10 club, fresh off a National Championship, and done it frankly, when they hadn’t even necessarily played their best game.
And really, that only added to the importance of that North Carolina win: It not only proved to fans that Kentucky could play with anyone in the country. It helped the players believe it as well.
“It was like everything that Cal came to do, and all his preseason quotes, the messages he has in his interviews, they all seemed to be coming true in that game,” Mark Krebs said. “That’s where I was getting calls from family members, like ‘You guys are for real.’”
Oh, and one more thing.
“(People were) like, ‘Who’s that John Wall guy?’”
To read more about John Wall, and the rest of his teammates at UK, pick up your copy of “One and Fun: A Behind the Scenes Look at John Calipari and the 2010 Kentucky Wildcats” which is available in paperback or Kindle on Amazon.com.
The book is a must have for every Kentucky fan, and will make a great holiday gift for friends and family as well. For more information on the book, and to read an excerpt about DeMarcus Cousins’ excellent adventures during a trip to New York, visit www.KentuckyBasketballBook.com.