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There and Back Again -- A Wildcat's Tale

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Today, the Kentucky Wildcats are headed out west to Anaheim, California, land of sunshine and opportunity.  Thursday, two Midwestern teams will face each other and find out who is better.  It's March.  It's as it should be.

At this point, I don't really care much who Kentucky plays.  It is a fact that we play Marquette, but it could be anybody in the nation.  Yes, Kentucky has a history with Marquette and a losing record, but I really don't care.  What I care about tonight is a quick look back at this year, and what it has meant to the Big Blue nation.

From then to now, A Sea of Blue has seen over 280 blog posts, the vast majority on basketball.  The season started with great optimism -- new coach, top 25 ranking, all of the things that Kentucky fans had become used to were coming true again.  One of the first posts I had of the season included this observation about Perry Stevenson:

Perry will be the single biggest beneficiary of Patrick Patterson's presence this year.  Patrick will help him become a confident player, and help him define his role on the front line.
My feeling is that I got this exactly right, in retrospect.  Although some have (and quite rightly) suggested that it is Perry's maturity that has lead to his improvement, I think playing with Patterson really helped accelerate the process.  But beyond Stevenson, we considered the fact that we had Patterson, Meeks, Crawford and Bradley -- ostensibly, the makings of a very competitive team.  But things didn't go as planned.

From the hopeful to the astonished, we move right along to our shocking loss to Gardner-Webb in the second game of the season, a team and a school few people around here had heard of before.  Gardner-Webb came into Rupp Arena like lambs to the slaughter, only someone forgot to tell them they were supposed to bow to the mighty Wildcats by a minimum of 20 points.  Instead, they were the wolves, rudely dismissing Kentucky at home to the astonishment of the entire nation.   From my post entitled "Scrugged!":
The coach has his hands full right now with a team filled with underclassmen, injuries out the ying-yang, and trying to learn what his team is like.  I expect he hates this loss just as bad as the most rabid of us do, but I also suspect he fully understands that he and the team must put this in proper perspective and face it like adults, as a learning experience.  It would help if we in the Big Blue Nation adopted that attitude as well.
Did we?  Well here at A Sea of Blue, we surely did.  Despite this horrible loss which still gets mentioned every time Kentucky comes up, we showed a lot of class and handled it well.  From a comment from Piketaylor from that same post:
But in the long run of things, this game does not truly mean much.  Yes, a loss is still tough to swallow, but it's only the second game of the season.  If the fans truly think that this is how this team will play for the rest of the season, then you may as well just turn the tv off for the rest of the year.  We will take our lumps, but then again we will probably win games we had no right to be in in the first place.
He was right, but not in the way we all hoped.  What followed shortly thereafter were losses to North Carolina, Indiana, UAB and Houston, a four-game skid which brought the concern after the loss to Gardner-Webb to a hot, violent boil of frustration. 

I'm not going to rehash every single game, just the high points, and ... the low points.  After a one-game reprieve against Tennessee Tech, San Diego came to Lexington and set about making things worse.  For me, this post was a very low point, after just losing to the Toreros:
This game was a horror, a freak show.  It featured a completely hapless team that dismantled our storied program like a Leggo skyscraper, and left the once-proud Big Blue Nation shaking their heads, or rushing to the liquor cabinet for comfort, or venting violently on the Internet yet again.  It is becoming a ritual, almost.
That was a depressing time, right in the middle of the holidays.  It was just amazing how frustrated I was at that point with Kentucky.  In retrospect, it seems that San Diego was a much, much better team than I gave them credit for, and unfairly so.  This same San Diego is a tournament team, having won the West Coast Conference as well as beating St. Mary's twice and Gonzaga once.  Still, at the time, it seemed an incredible, inconceivable loss, even worse than Gardener-Webb.  Not because the Toreros were a worse team, but because you expected the Cats to be much better by that point.

But then came the Vanderbilt game at Rupp Arena and the opening of conference play, and Kentucky's fortunes changed for the better.  We began to see the emergence of leadership and passion.  Ken Howlett said this in the post-game thread after we defeated Vandy in double overtime:

Ramel Bradley's leadership abilities have been questioned by many, including myself, for a while now. But, Saturday he showed a little something extra.

Example-- After Kentucky failed to get off a game winning shot(second half), Crawford trudged to the bench. "My first reacton was, I was a little mad and frustrated," he said, "because I thought the game should be over. Ramel made me realize it's still a game, and we still have to win."

It was at this point in the season where I began to hope a little, and I think most of the Big Blue Nation along with me.  We took a tough loss at Mississippi State, but most of us still hoped Kentucky had turned the corner.  But then came Florida, a team who, at the time, had beaten UK six straight times but was fielding a very young but talented team.  We lost, and again I felt despondency descend over me like a smothering black cloak:
I would love to post something positive, something inspirational.  But what can I say?  It would be ... irresponsible of me not to face the real fact that we cannot seem to win, even when we have personnel advantages.  That is something I am not used to.  Unfortunately, Gillispie & Co. do not seem to be able to duplicate effort.  I will give them this, though -- they do give effort, even if they are out of position 75% of the time, and give the ball away as though they don't want the damn thing.
They say it is darkest just before the dawn, and it was at that point that I had totally given up on the season.  I recovered just in time for the Wildcats to defeat Tennessee in a barnburner in Rupp Arena.  Nobody really saw that coming, and everyone was fully prepared for a double-digit, even ignominious defeat at the hands of the mighty Volunteers.  But Kentucky manufactured a close win by putting on the best ballhandling display they had managed all year, and out-toughing the Vols in front of a sellout crowd.  CodeBlue had the classic quote in the post-game thread:
I could write more about other great efforts but I will close by saying......sometimes the most beloved teams are the ones you have to suffer with first.  If this team continues to show this steady improvement, no matter what their record, this may end up as one of those teams.
This was utterly prescient, and nobody, even at that point in the season, held any real hope for the Cats to wind up 12-4 in the SEC and pulled the equivalent of an elephant out of a top-hat like a magician on steroids when Kentucky was invited to the NCAA tournament.

The winning continued, and amazingly, the Wildcats went on a tear and was on a 5-game winning streak when Kentucky cruised into Nashville one of the hotter teams in the land.  Then, the optimism of the Big Blue Nation was unceremoniously ripped from them as the Commodores raped the Wildcats 93-52 in Memorial Gymnasium.  Modcpa spoke for the Big Blue Nation in the post-game thread:
There is no room for middle ground with my emotional state concerning this edition of the Wildcats. I will either be the poster child for good mental health or the raving lunatic complete with butterfly nets and long sleeve shirts that tie in the back. The biggest decision I have to make is between a fetal position and the vegetative state.
I know that one encapsulated my thoughts at the time.  The Cats were on a roller-coaster ride between Heaven and Hell, and were alternately singed and blessed, right along with the rest of us.  Jerry Tipton was mailing the NCAA invitation back then and there, and our euphoria had turned briefly to grim thoughts of an incipient, catastrophic collapse.

But thankfully, a dire devolution was not to be.  Despite that historic 41-point massacre, Kentucky came back stronger than ever and won the next 4 in a row.  Then came the devastating news that Patrick Patterson was lost for the year, and again, I found a moment of despair:
Sometimes, there are simply no words to say, and this is one of them.  Patterson has meant the world to us, and it's hard to imagine us winning many more games without him, especially at this point in the season.  But unfortunately, that is the lot we have drawn.
But instead of collapsing inward like a neutron star on it's way to singularity, the Big Blue Nation rose up with grim determination, and so did Billy Gillispie's team.  Against all odds, all reason, and all expectations, Kentucky went to Knoxville and gave Tennessee the fight of their lives.  In the post-game thread, Blue Kentucky Girl did the honors:
This group may go and get themselves remembered as one our most beloved teams if they don't watch it.  Really couldn't be prouder to be a Wildcat than I am now.  Right after the game I was pretty heartbroken to get so, so close and fall just short but really, today is a great day to be a Kentucky fan.  I don't think I've ever felt quite so proud of a team after a loss in my life, and rarely even have I felt so satisfied after a win.
It was at this point that most of us knew that this would be a memorable season for all time.  We all know what happened next, as it is fairly recent.  The Cats won out from there, finally snapping Florida's 7-game win streak in Lexington and moving on to lose a tough one to Georgia in a storm-altered SEC tournament.

So now we have been there and back again, back to the giddy pre-season days, through the pain of Gardner-Webb and San Diego, the disappointment of Florida, the embarrassment in Nashville and the loss of Patrick Patterson.  The pain, the angst and the ecstasy of one of the strangest and most memorable basketball seasons in Kentucky history.

With tournament time upon us, the stakes have changed.  There is no longer a tomorrow, and if the season is to continue, the Kentucky Wildcats must defeat superior teams from here on.  Barring something extraordinary, Kentucky will not be favored in any game they play from now until they lose.  There are no expectations to reach, no crushing weight of a high ranking or powerful, under-appreciated ability.  From now on, Kentucky will face teams that should beat them, and quite possibly will, starting with Marquette.

But whatever becomes of the rest of this season, this is one I will always, always remember.  How could any true Wildcat fan forget it, or want to?  It is almost a Rocky Balboa story, and for a school and a team more accustomed to being thought of as Apollo Creed than the underdog, it is something that we have rarely experienced in the Big Blue Nation.  Not that I want to experience it again anytime soon, but I suppose once every decade or so is OK.