Four years. 1,460-odd days.
That's how long it's been since the Kentucky Wildcats had a chance to win the NCAA tournament that wasn't hundreds to one, or non-existent (it's hard to win a tournament to which you have not been invited -- just ask the North Carolina Tar Heels about that).
Even though it is somewhat painful to think about those lost years, Kentucky fans should keep them in mind while watching the NCAA Tournament this year, and just enjoy the feeling of being back with a high seed in the most important tournament of the season. That is Kentucky's reward for playing outstanding basketball this year, and winning all but two of its regular-season games.
When this season started, Ken Pomeroy's statistical site had the Wildcats slated to lose, I believe it was, six or seven games. As Kentucky came into the conference season, that number began to gradually but inexorably drift down and down until finally, with the overtime defeat of the Mississippi St. Bulldogs in the SEC Tournament championship game, the 'Cats finished the season 32-2. The neat thing about that is that Kentucky hasn't won 33 games or more since it last won the National Championship in 1997-98.
No matter what happens in the NCAA Tournament, Kentucky has accomplished some major things this year:
- Re-established a winning tradition at UK;
- Won an SEC regular-season and tournament championship in the same year, a feat not accomplished since 2004;
- Brought the Big Blue Nation back together again from the wreckage of the last four years;
- Created optimism for Kentucky basketball and raised it to a level that has not been seen around these parts since the 1990's;
- Made Kentucky a desirable destination for the nation's top recruiting targets;
- Re-established UK's lead in all-time NCAA wins, and reached the finish line first in the race to 2,000 wins;
- Achieved a #1 NCAA seed for the first time since 2004;
There are many more, of course, but these are just the big ones.
So when you watch the NCAA tournament over the next two weeks, remember how far the Wildcats have come. Enjoy watching them compete for the Big Enchilada, and feel the thrill of college basketball the way it was meant to be enjoyed by elite teams like Kentucky. Remember that Kentucky fans are members of a very few privileged sports fans who support a team that has historically competed at the highest level in their sport year in and year out, and has returned to that standing after a long, four-year hiatus.
Think about all these accomplishments, and the tradition that is Wildcat basketball, and embrace them. When you read "hate Kentucky", "hate Calipari", or "hate Kentucky fans" articles, enjoy them with the big, knowing smile of a fan who realizes that it is we who are going to have the last, best laugh while the detractors grumble. Even if UK stumbles earlier than expected, Kentucky's detractors know that the Wildcats will be back, probably next year and for the foreseeable future. They know it, they hate it, and they deserve every painful bit of the suffering that UK's success will inflict upon them.
In summary, embrace your membership in the Big Blue Nation. Let it wash over you, and fill you up with the joy that comes with being a fan of the most storied and successful college basketball team in the nation. Feel free to scoff at the pretenders in Lawrence, Bloomington, Louisville, Durham, and Chapel Hill when they try denigrate the Kentucky program, its coach or its fans. Remember the massive crowd of Kentucky faithful that outnumbered Tennessee fans 10-1 in their own state in the SEC Tournament this year, and realize that you are part of a vast network of passionate, engaged Wildcat fans who's love for college basketball is legend -- and that legend is growing year by year.
Kentucky is elite again. Enjoy it, it is delicious. It's going to last awhile, too, and you don't want to miss a single, tasty drop.