It is always difficult to say goodbye to a Kentucky basketball season, especially when the goodbye is said on Saturday night of the Final Four. That, though, is what we are left with. So it's now time to reflect on the season as a whole, remembering how far this team traveled, from the summer trip to Canada -- where we first saw glimpses of what was to come -- to the almost unbelievable in-season turnaround this team executed, putting themselves in a position to bring Kentucky its first Final Four in what seems like decades. The thirst was quenched, and quenched quite nicely.
So follow me after the jump for some stream-of-consciousness thoughts on the 2010-2011 season that was:
Josh Harrellson and DeAndre Liggins -- Simply put, both players became unrecognizable. The transformation both players committed to is a testament to their collective ability to recognize they weren't giving their all (something most folks have a hard time admitting). With their renewal -- Harrellson because of his never-ending glass cleaning and vastly improved offensive game, and Ligs because of his defense, his newly found ability to consistently make shots, and dedication to giving himself floor burns -- they both gave themselves a chance to make some serious dinero at the next level, whether that be in Europe or the NBA, while at the same time delighting Kentucky basketball fans with their heart and hustle; two tenets Big Blue backers rightfully demand of each player wearing "Kentucky" across their chest. So sirs, I salute you both! You've made Kentucky fans proud, your coach proud, and you've represented your families with class and dignity. (I know Ligs is contemplating testing the NBA Draft waters, but let me begin the chant here: One more year Ligs, one more year!).
Doron Lamb -- Not much to say about Lamb, except, WHAT A SUPER SWEET SHOOTING STROKE that young man has. More, give me more!
Beating Louisville -- That never gets old, no matter how many times Kentucky does it. The 'Cats have now bested the 'Cards in two straight (by a cumulative score of 149-125), five of seven, and since the rivalry became a yearly (torrid) affair, UK holds a sizable 19-11 advantage. And with next season's contest in Lex, I like UK's odds of widening the series gap. On a related note (to Card fans): If Louisville is going to keep up with the pacesetter (you know who that is, right?) it's gonna take more than Chane Behanan and Wayne Blackshear -- both good players, no doubt, but not good enough to elevate the vile Cards to the summit currently occupied by the Big Blue party bus.
Sweeping the Vols -- Beating UT always brings about a special kind of satisfaction. Maybe it's because of the Vols' domination of the football series with Kentucky, or maybe it's because I was born infused with an anti-Vol chromosome ... whatever the reason, I do love it when the round-ball 'Cats put Tennessee in their place (which is somewhere, way, way below UK in the college basketball pecking order). Even sweeter, the Wildcats have won six of seven from Tennessee ,and since 2000, UK holds a 17-4 advantage -- That's gotta hurt Vol fan, especially considering UT just ended the best six-year stretch in school history -- Perhaps UT needs to change their persuasion of orange to the burnt variety. Oh, I almost forgot -- see ya, wouldn't want to be ya Ms. Pearl, and good luck to Cuonzo Martin, maybe he will bring a modicum of respectability to the UT athletic department. A possibility which begs the question: Can the head basketball coach fire the athletic director?
Terrence Jones -- The only 'Cat to slightly regress (at least in the scoring column) during the course of the season, Jones is as gifted as any UK small forward in recent memory. Although I feel the chances are very good Jones will be paid to play next season, if the NCAA Tournament told him anything, it's that he's not ready for the NBA. Of course that won't matter, though, the Association drafts on potential, and Jones' ceiling is clearly Himalayan high.
Beating Florida, twice -- Even though the Gators won the SEC regular season title this year, Kentucky beat Billy Donovan's club twice, the final win being for the SEC Tournament championship (which in my mind makes up for coming in behind the Gators in the final standings). Suffice it to say, there is no end to the amount of joy UK beating the Gators brings me. Since the consecutive national titles Donovan caught in a bottle, the 'Cats have continued the great and long-standing tradition of beating-down their SEC brethren, winning six of the last eight contests. Bringing even greater elation is the fact that defensive guru (and Florida assistant) Larry Shyatt has left UF to take over as head Cowboy at the University of Wyoming. I guess it's back to 24-25 win seasons, and first weekend NCAA tournament exits for the Gators. But hey, nobody in the Sunshine State seems to notice, which is exactly how Billy D. likes it.
Brandon Knight -- Although the Kentucky point guard had a less-than-stellar performance against UConn in the Final Four, overall his season was phenomenal. Point guard is the hardest position to learn and master, but by mid-season Knight was making strong decisions, getting his teammates involved, and scoring when scoring was needed. The poise he developed so quickly is indeed impressive, for it's not often a freshman grabs the game by the horns and says, "I'm winning this game, right now," but that is precisely what Knight did on more than one occasion this season. If he stays with the 'Cats for another go-round, great, if not, I wish him all the best in the NBA; I'm sure he will thrive. One last thing, Knight is to be admired and appreciated for the way he handled himself, both on and off the court. He's a class act for certain. One more last thing, as most know Knight is a serious student and is on target to be a junior scholastically by the end of this semester. That's right, a junior! Amazing, simply amazing.
Darius Miller -- The once over-deferential 'Cat became the take-charge 'Cat about 25-games into the season, and like his teammates, Harrellson and Liggins, the transformation was well-timed and a sight to behold. One of only three upperclassmen on the team, Miller saw the need for leadership and helped fill the vacuum, to his great credit. Although his NCAA Tournament wasn't filled with high-scoring games, he continued to defend with a passion (Miller's defense has come light-years from his freshman year), rebound, and get the ball to his mates in a position to score, helping the team in ways not illustrated in the box score.
Beating Ohio State -- There is absolutely nothing better than the 'Cats beating a team they weren't expected to beat, and for me, outside of beating Louisville and Tennessee, beating Ohio State was the high point of a season full of mountain tops and valleys. In fact, the OSU win might be my favorite UK "moment" of the last few years. The experience was simply unadulterated elation and joy! What more can anyone ask of a basketball team but to provide their fans with a reason to be proud ... something Kentucky's win over the Buckeyes provided in spades.
Losing to UConn -- Does it shock me UK lost to the Huskies? No, but the manner in which they lost does surprise, at least me. Shooting 33% across the board -- from the field, long-range, and most shocking, the free throw line -- the 'Cats went a long way in sealing their own fate. It seemed to me the enormity of the stage had something to do with UK's sub-par effort, plus, the team seemed amped-up in a major way at the beginning of the game, using up whatever reserve they had, leaving their tank near empty the last five or six minutes. Missed shots, forced shots in the lane (when a kick-out was called for), and missed free throws, all point to a team that allowed the bright lights to get inside their heads a bit. With their tremendous defense in the second stanza, though, they gave themselves a chance to win, and for that they deserve kudos.
John Calipari -- Perhaps pulling off his most outstanding coaching job, Calipari tore down the building erected on sand, and remade the structure with a strong foundation, able to do battle with all that would tear it down. From a team that couldn't close the deal, to a team that thrived in close game situations (save the last one), Cal meshed and managed his 'Cats to 29 victories, an SEC Tournament championship, and a Final Four appearance. Along the way avoiding the pitfalls associated with a short bench and even shorter experience. Now, more than ever, I feel Cal is the right man for the job (Cal's record at UK is 64-12 .824). He "gets" the Big Blue Nation, he gets the talent, and he'll eventually get Kentucky its eighth national title (and maybe more).
Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!