You remember it, don't you? 2005?
That was the last time Kentucky was actually relevant in college basketball. Four years ago.
Seventeen games into the 2009-10 season, that seems like an age, an eternity. It feels like somehow I have been living years of my life with a big chunk of something bitten out of it, as if by some monstrous but unseen carnivore.
Since the Kentucky Wildcats lost in overtime to the Michigan St. Spartans in the NCAA Regional Finals in Austin Texas, I, like many fans, were used to approaching games at this time of year with trepidation. I wasn't looking forward to the games so much as dreading their aftermath. Dreading having to defend the coach. Dreading having to defend the team. Dreading even winning, because in those days, a dark gray funk covered the Big Blue Nation, and even winning was subjected to nth degree scrutiny. Every big victory was tempered by criticism. Nobody was having fun -- not the team, not the coach, not the fans. Fun was something we used to have back when the 'Cats were good. Fun was a memory of past glory, quickly bleached away by the harsh light of mediocrity and inconsequence.
And it wasn't just that the team wasn't winning, it went deeper than that. Even when the 'Cats won and fans were patting themselves on the back, saying "We're back!", it was with about as much conviction as a guilty defendant caught in a lie by a savvy prosecutor. We knew Kentucky wasn't back. We knew Kentucky wasn't relevant. We knew that we were not deceiving anyone but ourselves, and the smug, knowing grins from rival fans haunted us. Kentucky fans wanted so badly to be Kentucky fans again, but in order for that to happen, the team has to be a threat to do damage. From March 27th, 2005 until November 2nd, 2009, it wasn't.
But all that has changed.
Suddenly, even surprisingly, the dark gray funk was lifted. It didn't go gently. It went with difficulty, like childbirth, and not without pain. But then, John Calipari came to Kentucky, and just as Moses brought the Ten Commandments down from Mount Horeb, John Calipari brought The Great Wall, and the Big Cuz, and Eric Bledsoe (Yeah, he doesn't need a nickname). And just like that, Kentucky was breathing the air of relevance again.
Just. Like. That.
In retrospect, I really don't know what to think about it all. Perhaps the gods of basketball had just decided that that Kentucky had collectively suffered enough, or that it was just wrong for a great kid like Patrick Patterson never to get to play in an NCAA tournament.
Maybe this is a payback for some of the cruel tricks that history has played on the Wildcats over the years, like the Laettner Immaculation. Or perhaps the basketball gods just felt like it was time to teach Duke, North Carolina, Louisville and Florida (among others) a little humility (Actually, I really hope that's why).
Whatever the reason, Kentucky is not just relevant again, it is in air as rare as that near the top of Mount Everest. For Kentucky fans, it's almost like tossing a man dying of thirst into the Vergèze springs (where Perrier comes from) -- Wildcat fans can't get enough, don't want to talk about anything else, and can't wait to read the next article ogling John Wall and praising the Wildcats' talent, or buy the next issue of Sports Illustrated (journalistic blasphemy and all).
And UK fans can't wait until the next game.
An amazing change has come over the Big Blue Faithful -- I read about it in comments all the time. No longer do fans fear losing that big lead, or go nuts when an opponent takes a ten point lead. No longer do Wildcat fans fear the bad break, or the last-second shot that beats them, or the white-hot player. Suddenly, the fear and dread that used to haunt every game is gone. Winning is expected, and delivered. This is good. This is right. This is what Kentucky basketball used to be.
John Denver famously called West Virginia, "Almost Heaven," but right now, Heaven has relocated a few miles south to the Bluegrass. The Wildcats are back, the heavenly host is in tune, and breathtaking basketball arias are all we hear.
Ah, Heaven. Nice place, trust me.