Faces of a championship.
It's funny how the reality of something can lay around for a few days before its full impact is felt, even if we are well aware of its enormity and significance from the time it happens. I am forced to confess that I was overwhelmed by the opportunity to attend the Final Four, something I never expected to happen before the possibility was announced, and that I have since been even more overwhelmed by the reality that Kentucky basketball has once again returned to their rightful place at the top of the college basketball world.
Having been a fan a long time, I had envisioned all sorts of celebrations surrounding this game -- pulling out one of my 1998 bottles of special championship edition Maker's Mark and drinking it (not all at once, of course), painting a copious part of my house Kentucky blue, flying a UK flag for the rest of the year, all kinds of things. It turns out that after the event, none of them has any actual appeal. I'm happy just to let the feeling of rightness, the feeling of finally being back where we belong, wash over me.
I brought a cold back from the Big Easy, so it has thrown a bit of a monkey-wrench into my enjoyment of it all. It's also been necessary for me to vent my spleen just a little bit -- it's frustrating having so many people write articles critical of the Kentucky program and coach Calipari, and now that we are back on top, we absolutely don't have to take that stuff lying down anymore. But up until now, I haven't really written about the feelings and emotions surrounding Kentucky's ascension back to the throne of college basketball.
Like many people who read this space, I have been a UK fan for many years. I follow the team diligently, and write seemingly endless articles about the program, the team, the coach, the stats, and almost anything else that's even remotely related to the foregoing. But I also understand that I am but one of very many, millions even, who live and breathe the Blue and White, and even as this eighth national championship is now going on three days old, I think many of us have found ourselves still overwhelmed by the enormity of it, as though it didn't really happen. But it did. I was there. I saw the whole thing. There can be no grassy knoll, no fake moon landing arguments about this. This is real.
There are a lot of things that go along with being a national champion, particularly the way the Wildcats did it this year. There was never any doubt that they were going to be one of the best in college basketball after the marvelous recruiting class of 2011, and from season tip-off to "One Shining Moment" on Monday, this has been a season of expectations, very similar in character to 1996. We knew when UK defeated North Carolina, even by one skinny point in Rupp Arena on December 3rd, that we were in for something special.
Kentucky was extremely fortunate this year. Aside from Terrence Jones' pinkie finger and reserve Jon Hood's summer ACL injury, UK was almost completely injury- and illness-free all year. That is a rare thing, folks, and all you have to do is look 70 miles west from Lexington to see what an injury-plagued season looks like. The Louisville Cardinals would not be wrong to wonder what this season would have looked like if their team had been uninjured like Kentucky, but that sort of navel-gazing is always fraught with danger. It is just as likely that the team would have had chemistry issues that they didn't ultimately have, because injuries and adversity often bring teams closer together.
I find myself giving some of the credit for this victory to last year's unexpected Final Four team. In a way, they set the standard for this team with their very professional conduct and, despite some serious depth issues and having perhaps their best frontcourt player, Enes Kanter, declared permanently ineligible by the NCAA, the 2011 Wildcats won a great victory over two of the nation's best teams in the Ohio St. Buckeyes and North Carolina Tar Heels on their way to a Final Four that had been a long time coming. In that tournament, Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb, and Darius Miller all got invaluable experience in what it's like to play on the nation's biggest stage, experience that I believe served us well last Saturday and this Monday.
I cannot say enough about the magnificent demeanor of this 2012 basketball team. They walked the fine line between swagger and humble self-effacement, placing perhaps the best face on Kentucky basketball of any team in the modern era. Of course, we can do nothing at all about the fact that many people still hold Coach Cal in low esteem, unfairly in my view, but on balance, I am certain that this season did more to enhance the image of Kentucky basketball in every measurable way to fans with an open mind. I think we'll all have to be satisfied with that.
Finally, there is Darius Miller. If there has ever been a classier, more iconic example of the ideal of a student-athlete at Kentucky, I want you to show him to me. Through thick and thin, Miller brought out the true values of a born and bred Kentuckian, and I will never forget the passion, class, and unending effort he brought to Kentucky basketball. We all were deservedly critical of him from time to time, but I think, on balance, he met or exceeded every single expectation of him, and he was a critical factor in engineering this historic championship.
Anthony Davis will be remembered for his exploits on the court, as will the rest of the team. But Miller will hold that special place in the hearts of UK fans reserved for children of the Bluegrass, and the embodiment of the passion, love of the Commonwealth, and love for the traditions of Kentucky basketball that was in large part responsible for helping Rick Pitino resurrect the program from crippling probation.
In sum, I am just now preparing for a weekend of celebration. It may seem odd to hold it off for so long, but for something this enormous and historic, there is no rush. Time has seemed to slow down, and the prospect of a long, lazy summer basking in the afterglow of championship #8 is a pleasant one, indeed.