Editor's Warning: Ebullient praise and jubilation below.
Where do I begin? How does one convey the emotions one feels when, at long-last, what it is one yearns for comes to fruition? For Kentucky Wildcat basketball fans the wait seemed eternal, but alas, it is now upon us. And depending on one's point of view, either a year late, a year early, or 13 years too long (I fall into the latter category).
Really, who would have thought, only six short weeks ago, that this team -- with all their late-game flaws, their birth certificates dated post-1990, their leadership vacuum, their lack of toughness, and their seemingly fatal flaws composed of a short bench and lack of a big man capable of holding his own against talented tall timber -- would somehow, almost magically evolve into a cold-blooded shot-making team with a side dish of mother-in-law-defense thrown in for good measure? It is almost incomprehensible, but this team has risen from the cusp of giving UK fans and themselves a lost season, to the pinnacle of college basketball, roaming once again where only greatness is invited.
The in-season turnaround, spearheaded proudly and loudly by upperclassmen Josh Harrellson, Darius Miller, and DeAndre Liggins, is without precedent in the annals of UK basketball history. Never before has a team, not even the 1998 National Championship team, come so far, so fast, in the pursuit of redemption. And for that they all are to be commended, and placed on a high-rise pedestal reserved for enduring, legendary Big Blue teams.
From Josh Harrellson's revamped body and attitude -- where once there was mush and blue jean shorts, there is now iron fortified by a righteous will-to-win -- to Darius Miller's unparalleled confidence boost -- where once there were game-winning shots being passed up, and overly deferential play, there is now a shot-maker's mentality of "give me the ball and watch it go in" -- to DeAndre Liggins' commitment to stopping the opponent's best player, and leading the team (and possibly the nation) in floor burns --where once there was refusal to go into a game, to go along with a dash indifference, there is now, "I'm setting the tone of toughness for this team ... what'r you gonna do about it?" The change, the reversal of fortune, is almost enough to make true blue believers pinch themselves in an effort to determine if what was just witnessed, really happened.
But a quick check of the sport's pages tells me, that yes, the 'Cats did indeed just successfully endure the "Gauntlet of Doom," composed of West Virginia, a known 'Cat-killer, allegedly unbeatable and No. 1 ranked Ohio State, and fellow blue blood North Carolina, without nary a scratch (take that Selection Committee!). WAKE ME UP, I THINK I'M IN BLUE HEAVEN!
Don't forget, though, the man large and in charge, coach John Calipari, as well as his staff of John Robic, Orlando Antigua, and Kenny Payne (Tony Delk also should be included), for the job they did with this team -- first for coaching-up players they did not recruit, then nurturing (at times like an angry parent) the youngsters who make up the top three scorers on the squad, then pulling them together to make a team dedicated to execution, hustle, defense, and in possession of a steely-eyed, never-say-die attitude, otherwise known as resiliency -- is simply extraordinary and worthy of great praise and admiration. And for all those imbeciles with a Thesaurus (read: national sports writers and such) who espouse "Cal can't coach," you obviously haven't been paying attention (and if you have, and still feel similarly about Cal's coaching acumen, all I can come up with is that my 16-month old daughter knows more about leadership and basketball than you).
And finally, it's the Kentucky basketball fans who live and die with each possession, each win, and each loss, who are to be held-up high as the program-makers they are (if you haven't seen this video of a UK couple watching the final minute-and-a-half of the Ohio State game, please, watch it. It's priceless, and a great example of how passionate UK fans are about their team). After all, it's the fans of the 'Cats who support and bolster the program with their time, money, emotion, and sometimes keystrokes. It's the fans who fill Rupp Arena, turn the television dial to whoever is airing Kentucky's favorite sons, and travel across the United States en masse, turning every city visited Kentucky blue. It's the fans who visit sites like A Sea of Blue to discuss and dissect, rant and heap praise, together, like a family spread throughout the four corners of the earth. A family it indeed is. A family perma-dipped in blue and white, everlastingly dedicated to rooting for the team their fathers, mothers, grandparents, and great grandparents cheered on as they sat by the Philco, listening to Cawood Ledford and Claude Sullivan enthusiastically painting the picture of victory for the 'Cat fans listening intently around the Commonwealth.
Win or lose this weekend, this season has been one I will remember until the day my wife pulls the plug, because there is nothing in a sporting life quite as satisfying as one's favorite team surpassing expectations by miles and miles. So Big Blue faithful, enjoy the week, enjoy the team, enjoy watching the 'Cats invade the Final Four, a place only giants dare tread, and a place about to experience what it means to be engulfed in the legendary Blue Mist.
Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!