After checking around the web last night, I was pleasantly surprised with the Kentucky fanbase's generally even-keeled repsonse to yesterday's 64-61 loss at home to No. 1 Florida.
Expecting the usual flood of negativity and "I told you so" message board banter, it was generally a sort of resignation and appreciation for the Wildcats' efforts, however in vain.
But this morning, my polite disgust was replaced with that gnawing sense or entitlement that UK fans seem to posess in droves. Why am I still so happy with "almost"? And at the risk of turning into that which I so often rail against, where is the "Kentucky" brand of basketball?
Don't get me wrong. Compared to last year's bunch, this crew of Cats oozes heart and effort. They lack key components, and too frequently rely on the wrong personnel at key times (e.g. Bobby Perry, anytime).
But without dredging up more animosity, or repeating ad nauseum the recruiting refrains, am I really going to have to wait another year for the chance to see a win in a big game?
To recap this season:
• Big games in Maui = close loss to UCLA, big loss to Memphis
• Chance to rebound at UNC = game effort, loss
• 11-game win streak, home game vs. Vandy, chance for rankings return = home loss
• Bounce-back game at Georgia, big first half = close loss
• National TV audience, huge game against No. 1 at your house = close loss
This isn't to say there haven't been good times. Indiana is a better team than folks thought when we played them, and it's a win that has held up nicely. Louisville could end up slipping into the NCAA tournament, making that win seem more notable. And both rivalry games are "must win" when it comes to the home fans.
But even if we discard last season as the anomaly, the track record of showing up for big games for the current roster is pretty damning.
I happen to be an apologist for the 2005 season, consistently marvelling at folks' inability to remember how close that group came to breaking the current "Final Four" curse. But looking back at the "big games" they won, you see the following:
• Game at #9 North Carolina = don't show up, loss
• Game at #13 Louisville = only miracle game from (now departed) Sparks overcomes rest of team's lethargy in close win
• Home game vs. #2 Kansas = never in it, loss
• Road game at #16 Bama = win, but guys still on team now provide just 16 of 78 UK points
• Pair of late losses to unranked Florida (road, SEC final)
The trend here is that while Kentucky is winning 23+ games, they are becoming a team that wins the games they are supposed to and comes "oh so close" in games they are either underdogs or on even standing with.
Is this just the makeup of the current group of players? So much ink has been spilled on the merits or lack thereof of our senior class. The juniors have a track record of disappearing, particularly offensively, on the biggest stage. Can this really be chalked up to just bad breaks?
In any event, my point is that I'm tired this morning of finding ways to explain why things didn't go the Cats' way. You make your own luck.
What's most frustrating is that for years I considered Tubby Smith the opposite. To me, he was the guy you wanted in the big games, even though he was prone to overlooking the lesser opponent. But as time has worn on, he's taken a turn towards the "Huggins," the guy who beats the beaten and takes solace in the close loss to a big-name opponent.
While I don't hyperventilate at the lack of Final Fours (I don't like it, but ... ), Smith's Kentucky record in the biggest NCAA games (Final Four, Elite Eight) is now 3-3, with all three wins coming in 1998's title run. Since? Three losses in three Final 8 games. Legitimate reasons for those losses? Of course.
But how long do I have to continue to be happy defending the fact that we're just happy to be there?