This is what college basketball in the Bluegrass is all about.
UK versus North Carolina; the two winningest programs in the history of college basketball. UCLA, Kansas, Indiana, and Duke, although great programs, will always be pretenders when it comes to claiming the title of "King of College Basketball." No, that illustrious title belongs to ... at present, the Tar Heels of North Carolina: Two national championships in the last five years; three Final Fours in the last five seasons; a 183-38 overall record (.828) since the 2003-'04 season (Roy Williams' first in Chapel Hill); a 72-24 conference record (.750) in the last six years; winners of five straight games over UK; and a 21-4 NCAA Tournament record since Williams took over the reins from the deposed Matt Doherty.
Compare Carolina's numbers to UK's over the last six years -- 139-63 record (.688); 65-31 SEC record (.676); zero Final Fours; 6-5 NCAA Tournament record -- and most 'Cat fans, regardless of how die-hard and loyal, must admit the powder blue has overtaken Big Blue as the preeminent college basketball program in the nation.
And it's not as if the Tar Heels are nouveau riche, either. Their winning tradition goes back nearly as far as UK's. Carolina boasts George Glamack, National Player of the Year in both 1940 and '41, and behind the 1957 National Player of the Year, Lennie Rosenbluth, the Heels won their first NCAA championship. The Tar Heel legacy of great players is filled with familiar names -- Phil Ford, James Worthy, Michael Jordan, Charlie Scott, Kenny Smith, Mitch Kupchak, Pete Brennan, Billy Cunningham, Sam Perkins, and Bobby Jones -- All either National Player of the Year, ACC Player of the Year, or ACC Rookie of the Year.
Today, though, marks the first, best chance Kentucky has of reclaiming the mantle of college basketball supremacy. With the hiring of John Calipari as UK basketball coach, and his incredible recruiting ability, the 'Cats are now in position to do what it is they do ... win championships, and beat the best teams in the land.
Some wise sports writers (read: John Clay) have pontificated that this game means nothing in the larger scheme of things. Afterall, it's December, still a full month away from the games that really count. But today's contest represents the opportunity for UK to show the nation that they are back. Back from their deep slumber, back from the near-dead. By beating (powder) blue blooded Carolina, the channeling of Lazarus will be initiated, and the statement made by Big Blue will be heard from Maine, to Minnesota, to Westwood -- The 'Cats are back, and they're pissed. Tired of being the whipping boys of the national media, tired of being the whipping boys of the Florida's, the Vandy's, and the Kansas' ... this Kentucky team has the talent, the coaching, and the motivation to impel UK to re-take it's rightful place among the elite of college basketball. And it all starts today with a victory.
I realize Carolina comes into Lexington the No. 10 ranked team in the land. I realize Roy Williams has a roster full of hamburger All-Americas. I realize the Carolina roster is littered with great length. I realize Carolina is a much more experienced ball club than the 'Cats, and I realize Kentucky relies heavily on four fuzzy-faced freshmen to lead the team to victory. But there will be no denying UK that which is theirs. This UK team is full of winners, full of players who know how to win, because that's all they have done for their entire lives. But more importantly ...
No longer is Patrick Patterson the lonesome warrior ... He now has (actual point guards) John Wall and Eric Bledsoe to feed him the ball, and hit game-changing shots ... He now has DeMarcus Cousins, the man-child playing by his side, ensuring he's not double-and-triple teamed, as well as snagging every available rebound as if it's the last T-bone in Texas ... He now has Daniel Orton to competently spell him so he doesn't have to abuse his body by playing every second of every game ... He now has John Calipari who knows how to use a man gifted with such extreme talent.
And finally, most importantly, ALL of the 'Cats will have a full, ravenous, electrified, rockin' Rupp Arena crowd, which will refuse to allow the 'Cats to lose. The fans, those who pay the high price for season tickets, as well as those happy wanderers who pay as they go ... those are the people who have suffered through the indignity of the last four years. Those who tune in every time the 'Cats don the uniform and cheer until hoarse-voiced ... those are the fans who will not allow Carolina to quash the Big Blue resurrection. We, the fans, simply can't leave all the heavy lifting to the players. We must will the victory, if defeat seems imminent, because this game is just the first step in a series of steps designed to demonstrate that Kentucky basketball, the original gangsta, is back on the block and ready to reclaim territory lost.
We've filled Rupp to it's rafters even though the 'Cats were less than they should be. We've supported the program, even though it was hard to support. We've bemoaned our fate, because it is afterall, our team. So now that greatness is within this team's grasp, and therefore our grasp, Carolina must serve as the first domino to go down. Releasing the energy to propel us, and our team, back where we belong.
How have previous UK coaches fared in their first rivalry game? Joe Hall lost to Indiana, 64-58, on December 9, 1972; Eddie Sutton beat Indiana, 63-58, on December 7, 1985; Rick Pitino lost to Indiana, 71-69, on December 2, 1989; Tubby Smith beat Indiana, 75-72, on December 6, 1997; and Billy Gillispie lost to North Carolina, 86-77, on December 1, 2007.
Click here for Tru and Sylvar's excellent pre-game analysis.
Thanks for reading, and Go 'Cats, beat the Heels!