"... you've got to ask yourself one question: 'Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?'"
Watching the 2010 version of the University of Kentucky basketball team invokes many differing, sometimes contradictory emotions: A team so youthful, yet a team so mature; A team so immature, yet a team so clutch; A team so defying of all the odds, yet a team with such lofty expectations; A team so talented, yet a team so very lucky ... or, is it luck?
The "it" I refer to is the seemingly "mission impossible" this UK squad has time after time successfully completed. Regardless of time or score, John Calipari's team of achievers have brought themselves, as well as an entire angst ridden Big Blue Nation, back from the brink of defeat nearly without fail. It is an almost indefinable quality not often found in any team, in any sport, but a quality Kentucky basketball fans have luckily become accustomed to over the last five months.
Whether it be the incomparable John Wall's game-winning shot with :03 remaining to win the Miami, OH game back in November, or, the DeAndre Liggins three-pointer to bring UK within four points against Mississippi State in Starkville, or, Wall's spectacular defensive play, first blocking Vanderbilt's John Jenkins' shot, then stealing the ball from Jenkins to preserve UK's 58-56 victory in Nashville, or, the inconceivable path the 'Cats took to victory over Mississippi State in the SEC Tournament championship game on Sunday. Regardless of time and score, these 'Cats maneuver their way to victory lane, and savor the sweet taste of Wildcat champagne more often than they should.
Throughout the season, fans, pundits, and coaches alike bemoaned this groups lack of killer instinct when it came to putting opponents on the early bus with an "L." But what we all know now is that the killer instinct this team possesses is the cruelest, most unforgiving of all instincts: It is that which lures the foe into a premature sense of victory, then, without warning, the killer 'Cats intuitively move in for the win. And suddenly, where there was defeat, there is now victory. It's not taught, it's not learned, it's not even practiced. It just is.
Some people call it a refusal to lose, some call it the winning instinct, some call it winners, winning games, and still others call it luck. I, though, call it pure, unadulterated talent. And it is UK's best chance since 1998 of hanging banner number eight in the lofty heights of Rupp Arena.
Unfortunately, if the Big Blue talent were older, only by a year or so, it would simply be no contest. Kansas, Duke, Syracuse, West Virginia ... they could all mail their RSVP's to the Big Dance with their regrets, because afterall, why show up? But the fact that this UK team is so painfully young, gives the others reason to believe, which is exactly what this team wants -- Give the opponent a reason to believe they can win, then snatch away their faith in the micro-second it takes the 'Cats to turn lemons into lemonade. It ain't water into wine, but it makes UK fans drunk with delirium.
Designs on Destiny
Regardless of time and score ... it almost seems comical. Not in a Richard Pryor sort of way, but in a disbelieving, head-shaking sort of way, as if to say, "Did I just see what I think I saw?" Unforeseen turn of athletic events happen on all the various fields and courts of competition, but rarely is one team the source of such bemusement. And rarely does such youth consistently win in the way these 'Cats have won. But talent, and in UK's case, extreme talent, has a way of manifesting the confidence needed to win that which was lost. Sunday's showdown with the Mississippi State Bulldogs is Exhibit A: A John Wall steal and resulting layup inside the final minute; followed by an intentional free throw miss kept alive and tapped to the corner by Patrick Patterson; and finally, a DeMarcus Cousins tying put-back with a "mili-second" remaining on the clock. If just one of those improbable plays would have happened to secure victory (or at least overtime) for UK, it would have been considered by many to be a miraculous turn of events. But to have all three plays fall the 'Cats' way is ... well, indescribable, unfathomable, and perhaps ...
Destiny: The seemingly inevitable (certain to happen) succession of events.
Am I believer in destiny? I must confess, I'm not sure. But I do know I've seen, over the years, teams that are special, and teams whose specialty is winning games they have no business winning. But, when one team, in one season, continues to leave arenas of competition with a smile "tatted" across their face, when a loss would have been a more appropriate outcome, one has to wonder. Wonder if this team, because of their overly creative ways and means of coming out on the winning side, is destined to be remembered ... Wonder if this team, because of the decisive manner in which they respond to challenges, is destined to be revered ... Wonder if this team, because of their unusually high level of accomplishment, in spite of their youth, is destined to be flattered by emulation ... Wonder if this team, because of all of this, is destined for greatness, destined to be beloved?
Whether it be luck, destiny, talent, or simply refusing to lose, this Kentucky basketball team is without peer in the recent annals of college basketball. One has to venture back nearly 20 years to find a team so young, yet so talented. The Michigan Wolverines, aka, The Fab Five, is the last team ('91-'92) with such a kiddie corp roster to boast enough talent to challenge the college basketball world for supremacy. But even Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwuan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson never rose higher than 11th in the AP Poll in their freshman year, were a "6" seed going into the NCAA Tournament, and lost seven games along the way to the Final Four. Talented? By gawd yes. Destined for greatness? Lord no. But do we judge this Kentucky team by how far they travel in the NCAA Tournament?
In my eyes, this UK squad has already achieved that which I hoped it would -- They have brought back to Lexington, as well as the rest of the Bluegrass, the feeling of anticipation, in place of dread, hope, in place of heartache, and admiration, in place of sympathy. Collectively they have reconstructed the UK brand with gusto. And for that we should all be grateful.
But the simple fact is, this team has proved overwhelmingly, that size does matter, but age doesn't. And when it comes to winning games, they've mastered the art of finishing. And because of that, my expectation is for the 'Cats to travel in a northerly direction for the final weekend of fun. Yes, along the way, the road will be filled with all manner of distraction, possibly including Longhorns, Owls, and Mountaineers. A surly bunch, indeed, but the boys in blue have me believin'.
So call it destiny, luck, or whatever you like, I'll believe, until I have reason to doubt.
Thanks for reading, and Go 'Cats!