UK March Badness: 'Cats Use All Nine Lives In Loss To 'Neers

What a ugly, unfortunate end to an otherwise great season. 

The Kentucky Wildcats (35-3), needing to hit a shot (4-32 threes,12.5%), get the ball down low, make a free throw (16-29, 55.2%), defend (WVU shot 57.1% in 2nd half), and value possession (16 turns), executed none of the above, succumbing to the pressure of the moment, and the defense of a well-deserving West Virginia Mountaineers (31-6) squad.  And with a late-season bugaboo re-emerging and biting the 'Cats where it stings the most, rearing its unwelcome head in the form of a gaggle of off-target three-pointers, the building bricks of a loss were piled one on top of another.  Couple Kentucky's outside shooting woes with the 'Cats' struggles to get the ball inside, and UK was left wanting on the offensive end in their 73-66 Elite Eight loss.  I know John Calipari said this team's lack of consistent three-point accuracy would not be the reason the 'Cats lost, but, I take no pleasure in opining that he might have missed that prognostication.

No matter how one spins the loss, in the final analysis, UK's inability to put the ball in the orange, round cylinder, plus 10 first half turnovers (which kept the game close), resulted in the 'Cats returning to Lexington empty-handed. 

And returning empty-handed is not what was anticipated by the vast majority of the Big Blue faithful.  Shocking, perhaps not, but most assuredly, unexpected.  Whether it was the uniquely bright lights of the big stage, the backboard backdrop in the Carrier Dome (didn't seem to bother WVU), or Bob Huggins and his defensive game-plan, the 'Cats utterly failed to fire.  They played their behinds off, but they weren't the same team they've been the last month or so.

So how do we now view this Kentucky Wildcat basketball team?  Some will rant and rave about the terrible ending to the year, and they'll be justified in doing so.  Some will take the loss in stride, pointing to the fact that the 'Cats won 35 games and there is always next year, and they'll be justified in doing so.  Some will thank this team for putting Kentucky basketball back in the national spotlight, and giving UK fans around the globe a reason to once again cheer, and they'll also be justified in doing so.

But, regardless of ones outlook, especially hard to deal with are end of season losses ... euphemistically, they very hard to swallow, even more so for a fan-base known as being the most demanding in the sport of college basketball.  And although UK's decade-long-plus streak of failing to make the Final Four continues for yet another year, I encourage UK fans to embrace the future, because it is bright.  Perhaps brighter than it has been in quite some time.

Rewriting the Future

Under the leadership of head coach John Calipari, the Kentucky basketball program will survive to produce another team of thoroughbreds, who will bring with them another opportunity to bask in the glory of cutting down the nets, and celebrating like it's 1998.  For what Calipari brings to the college basketball table is an ability to persuade the nation's top high school ballers to play for someone who has coached in the NBA, coached No.1 overall selections in the NBA Draft, as well as having coached a myriad of would-be millionaires.  Love it or hate it, that's what it's all about today in the environment known as big time college athletics.  And that fact is not going to change, at least in my lifetime.

But what does need to change is UK winning the national championship.  Tubby Smith's initial season, and the last time the 'Cats visited the Promised Land, was a long, long time ago (heck, I've gotten married and had three kids since then).  The 'Cats have been to four Elite Eight's since the end of the 1998 season, but for various reasons, they've been unable to successfully book a trip to the Final Four.  And although Calipari brings recruiting acumen to the Bluegrass, let's face it, his teams are always going to be young.  And consistently fielding young teams, regardless how talented, will always present Calipari with additional coaching challenges -- Melding egos, continuously re-teaching his offensive and defensive schemes, and consoling and cajoling youngsters who are often more concerned with playing time and highlight reels than winning the ultimate prize.

But, recruiting the would be one-and-done player is the only way to consistently compete for championships in today's hoops world.  The lure of the almighty (NBA) dollar has resulted in the term "senior leadership" becoming an antiquated, underused phrase.  So what remains to be seen is if Calipari is capable of coaching a perpetually young team to a title.  We know he can take teams to the Final Four, the championship game even, but he's yet to seal the deal for real.

But, after seeing the way Calipari deftly handled this year's ball-club, fostering what was great team chemistry in a team of superstars, I harbor great hope for the future.  We know Cal can coach-up his players ... actually, rather impressively coach-up his players.  The next step, though, is the hardest to complete, which is why it's the most satisfying.

So although disappointment is certainly called for after helplessly watching the 'Cats toss their chance to dance last out of the Carrier Dome window, don't waste too much time lamenting.  We have, afterall, just begun our adventure ... just begun, one might ask?  Just begun because the 2010 'Cats are the genesis of what promises to be a return to normalcy for the Kentucky basketball program.  Not unlike the revered "Unforgettables" and their coach Rick Pitino, this UK team, along with the considerable talents of John Calipari, have signaled the beginning of a long sought journey back to the top of the mountain. 

Thankfully, all of Big Blue Nation has been delivered from the depths of four consecutive feloniously bad seasons, by this group of 'Cats.  And as long as John Calipari is coaching the Wildcats, vying for titles will be the norm.  So in essence, this season, even losing disappointingly in the Elite Eight, has served as the launching pad for what promises to be a fulfilling decade.

So my sincere thanks to seniors Ramon HarrisMark Krebs, and Perry Stevenson, as well as Patrick Patterson, John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Daniel Orton, Eric Bledsoe, DeAndre Liggins, Darnell Dodson, Darius Miller, Jon Hood, and Josh Harrellson.  You guys put the mystique back in Kentucky basketball, where it belongs.

2010 Record-Setting Performances

John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe, and Daniel Orton all rank at the top, or near the top, of the Kentucky record books in the following categories:

Wall -- Set a freshman and overall record for most assists in a season with 241 (6.5 assists per game).  He bested Dirk Minniefield's previous freshman mark by 115 assists.  Wall also set the freshman scoring record with 616 points scored (16.6 points per game).  Wall now stands second on the freshman steals list with 66 (1.8 steals per game).

Cousins -- Is now second on the freshman scoring list with 575 points (15.1 points per game).  Cousins also now tops the freshman rebounding record book with 375 (9.9 rebounds per game).  The big man is third in blocks by a freshman with 67 (1.8 blocks per game).

Bledsoe -- Stands fourth in UK's freshman assist category with 106 (2.9 assists per game).  He is sixth in points scored for a frosh with 419 (11.3 points per game).  Bledsoe is also third in steals by a freshman with 52 (1.4 steals per game).

Orton -- Is now fourth in blocks by a freshman with 51 (1.3 blocks per game). 

Thanks for reading, and Go 'Cats.

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