For me, Senior Day has always been a signal that another season is nearing its end. And whether the 'Cats are national title contenders, or championship pretenders, the end of the basketball season always comes much too soon. As a child grows into adulthood in the blink of a hummingbird's eye, so does October pass into spring. And in the Bluegrass, where Kentucky basketball proudly serves as our national pastime, reflection comes naturally.
In reality, the 2009-2010 Kentucky basketball season didn't begin with the first day of practice in October, rather, it began on March 31, 2009; The day John Calipari was hired to lead the Wildcats back to college basketball prominence. A day filled with giddy optimism, tempered by the question, "How long will it take him to bring back the 'Cats?" Afterall, the UK faithful had faithfully suffered for four years. Four years of losses (52 to be exact), lost coaches, lost excitement, and one lost Mr. Wildcat, Bill Keightley. The pop, the pizazz, the profound effect Kentucky basketball had on the national scene was diminished to an extraordinary extent. Scuffling were the 'Cats, and anxious, even overwrought, were members of the proudest, loudest fan base in America.
From the first day Calipari took over leadership of the program, though, the waters have calmed, and the sea is once again blue, instead of foamy, ship-shaking white. A ship that could best be described as taking on water, was suddenly soothed by the hiring of a man similar in so many ways to the once beloved Rick Pitino. Calipari's deft touch in handling those, i.e. boosters, cast aside by the previous regime, and his embracing of former players and the average fan alike, are only bested by his demonstrable ability to bring righteous ballers to the college basketball capital of the world. A talent lacking in Lexington over the previous several years, but brought back with a vengeance by the driven, charismatic Calipari.
The answer to Wildcat fan's question, "How long will it take him ... ?" was asked and answered within thirty days of Calipari's rise to the top chair. The talent Calipari persuaded to ply their trade in Wildcat blue invoked memories of days gone by. And so in record time, a resounding "Not long!" was the answer heard echoing 'round the Commonwealth, south to Cat-lanta, north to York, and west to San Diego, where transplanted 'Cat fan Isaacs mans the left coast.
Simply put, Calipari's assimilation into Wildcat culture was seamless ... and then the prognosticating began.
With opinions ranging from, "I'd just like to make the tournament again," to, "I think this is a Final Four team," the initial season of the John Calipari era got underway with palpable anticipation and much fan fare. Seemingly the talent level was much higher than in the previous ten years or so, but the unbridled youth, which comprised many pivotal components of the team, was the reason cited by many to be cautious when evaluating the squads ultimate invincibility. A good thing, no doubt, but just how good, is the question which gave us pause.
Almost scared to dream too big after four years in purgatory, most pushed back the excitement, not wanting to set themselves up for disappointment. And then, finally, basketball began.
Basketball as it is meant to be ... at least according to UK disciples. Fast breaks led by the phenomenal John Wall, and finished by the incomparable Patrick Patterson and DeMarcus Cousins. Competent three-point shooting by long-range assassins Darnell Dodson and Eric Bledsoe, shot blocking by Daniel Orton and all those who roamed the paint. From the beginning, and evident for all to see, was the fulfillment of our 'Cat dreams: An unabashed elevated level of talent. At last, a level of talent the Rupp Arena rowdies were accustomed to supporting. All was right in the universe, as Kentucky was once again, Kentucky.
As these 'Cats traveled far and wide, first to Cancun, then to the majesty that is Madison Square Garden, victories began to pile up, one on top of the other. And the race to 2,000 wins, once a point of concern, was won as easily as Secretariat galloped by his lacking competition. These kitty 'Cats, though steeped in youth, won games early, won games late, they won games they shouldn't, and they won games, previously, they wouldn't. The once contained excitement of the Big Blue Nation was beginning to reveal itself. Where once caution was advised, now unrelenting hope for banner number eight reigned supreme.
But along the perilous path to perfection, perfection was interrupted, but undaunted continued the 'Cats. Casting aside doubts about suddenly struggling three-point shooting, and Patrick Patterson's role within the juggernaut, the 'Cats continued to do what they do best ... win games. Which brings us to the here, and the now.
As we all bid our goodbyes to departing seniors Ramon Harris, Perry Stevenson, and Mark Krebs, as well as those who take their leave early, including Patrick Patterson, John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, we should thank the warriors for their faithful service to the most passionate fans in America. They should be thanked for their part in bringing back to the forefront of the college basketball landscape the program that started it all. For without their diligent contributions Kentucky would still be struggling to regain its true identity.
So, regardless of how the remaining season plays out; regardless of a second round loss, or a Final Four triumph, this Kentucky team is responsible for re-energizing, re-invigorating, and re-inventing a program once left for near-dead by those armed with microphones and opinions. This team is responsible for fulfilling the words so often spoken and heard throughout 'Cat-land over the last four years, "We'll be back!" Back indeed, Big Blue is, about that there can be no question. So thank you seniors, thank you early entries, and thank you John Calipari, for making great again the definition of greatness.
Thanks for reading, and Go 'Cats!