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Learning To Let It Go

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It's one of those adult lessons that takes years to learn (at least it did for me) and is so deceptively simple as to be nearly impossible when entrenched in the throes of youthful exuberence and the desire -- perhaps even the need -- for acceptance.

And yet, when you examine your heroes -- those men and women you admire most in your daily (and fantasy) life -- it is a common thread almost to a one. But for various reasons, both legitimate and ill-, as a group we Kentucky fans don't do a very good job of it. The strange thing is that we, collectively, should not struggle so mightily with it, but we do.

The very picture of overachievement. (Courtesy: Jon Scott)

I'm talking, of course, about self-confidence.

Don't read too much into this. I'm not in polar opposition to my holmes Tru in that it does get hard not to notice the slights -- perceived or real -- from the national media. Toss in a few local columns, some asset-driven media coverage (I'm looking at you, ESPN...) and a healthy dose of Evil Empire and -- voila -- instant thin skin.

The thing is, as I began by saying, there's nothing good in worrying about what the Katzes and Fordes of the universe think, even if they do hold the occasional AP vote. As we well know, results speak for themselves. Win 20 in a row and who will leave you off the top line? Make a Final Four and who will tell you it was anything less?

The UK problem of late has been results, not perception.

Interestingly, I don't think this is a new phenomenon at all, and I have for some time wondered if, in fact, the fount of our collective paranoid complex comes from somewhere deeper, some subconcious Bluegrass ethos that passes from generation to generation. Call it "Kentucky Pride", a chip on the shoulder or what you will, but it's pervasive, and the root of generations of overachievement.

You think Ritchie Farmer or John Pelphrey wasn't fueled with unequal parts ability and willfulness? How do you explain Ravi Moss? Or Cameron Mills? Those aren't stories of players living up to their abilities. They are stories of the underdog outscrapping the big dog on the court on the backs of grit, determination and a healthy dose of feeling slighted.

Tubby Smith's best Kentucky teams rode this sentiment hard: the 1998 Comeback Cats were not the most talented team, the 2003 SuffoCats had flaws galore but even more heart. No one will forget Rick Pitino's Bombinos, maybe the most beloved of all Pitino's teams, even without the massive success that later editions had.

It's hard to chalk that up purely to accident.

The media world is also keenly aware of this dark state not-so-deep in Big Blue Nation. Want to get a half-million hits in three days? Pen a piece dogging the Cats. Write about a top 10 list with no Kentucky on it. Tell us that the Florida championship teams could play with the 1996 Cats. Your hits will skyrocket, if not your credibility in Wildcat eyes.

And that brings us to Billy Gillispie and his first UK team. Between Eddie Sutton's Elite Eight 1986 team, the Bombinos (1989-90) and the Comeback Cats (1998), Kentucky fans have seen some remarkable first-year success stories.

There are two ways to look at that: We've been royally spoiled with strong, hungry coaches who get the most out of their overachieving group; or the collective whoosh of Big Blue Nation's immense fervor and appreciation is worth more than just a bunch of T-shirts sold.

Maybe it's some of both, or more correctly it's each one feeding off the other. Gillispie fits the mold of the Sutton-Pitino-Smith up-and-comer, and he's on the verge of a strong head of steam with his recruiting bullrush. And his players -- left-overs, misfits, misfires all -- fit the bill as well. There's talent, and chips on shoulders, but is there the heart? We shall see.

So I advise you not to read too much into Kentucky-less rankings, columns talking of the glory of the Bruce Pearl years at Tennessee, the halcyon days of Gator-mania. On paper, it's hard to say such thoughts are far off.

But we've seen this before, this brush-off, this dismissing of the Kentucky mystique. It usually happens right before the roar, the crush, the wave of a blue-clad army overtaking the naysayers.

And after that, the fawning begins anew.