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Kentucky Basketball 2007-08: The End of the Line

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I decided to give myself an evening before putting my fingers back on the keyboard to talk about this year's version of the Wildcats, who fell to Marquette University yesterday 74-66.  It may seem routine, but to me, the end of a basketball season is a momentous thing.  Around the Bluegrass, we live and breathe this sport, so when most of our rooting interest is suddenly taken from us, it is a bit like I imagine withdrawal from a mild drug addiction would be.  Suddenly, it is the post-season for your team, and there are no more games to play and no more brass rings to grasp.

As usual, the very first thing I want to do is congratulate the Marquette Golden Eagles on an outstanding ball game.  I was very impressed with their effort and their heady play, and Tom Crean had a great game plan for beating Kentucky, which was aggressive defense of our two senor guards and relentlessly attacking the basket.  For the most part, the Marquette team executed that game plan to perfection, and they shot the basketball very well from everywhere.  Combine good execution with vastly superior depth and somewhat superior talent, and it was just too much for the tough-minded Wildcats to overcome.  Well done, Golden Eagles.  Fairly and nobly won.

I still feel a little numb from the loss, as I usually do for a day or so after Kentucky is excused from the tournament.  I try to reflect on the season, but usually at this point, my mind just feels a little like oatmeal.  By the time we are well into the weekend, I will probably have an even more sound perspective.  I have not availed myself of anyone else's observations, and to this point I have not read a thing that has been written about Kentucky's game yesterday.  I do that for a reason, and the reason is that I want to make sure what I am writing down are my own thoughts, and not combined with those of others into an amalgam.  Even though that latter often provides more clarity and insight, it seems to me that when I write a post-NCAA tournament article, it should be all mine.

As the Big Blue Nation begins to move from partisan to more or less neutral interest in the NCAA tournament, the first thing that comes to my mind is how happy I was that the Wildcats actually made it.  Back during the dark days of December, I was sure that this season would end ignominiously -- instead, it ended gloriously.  No, we didn't win even one game in the NCAA, and most years that would be considered abject failure.  But not this year.  Most years, an 11(!) seed would be cause for serious consternation and significant fan anger at the coaching staff.  Not this year.  Most years, losing the first game we played in the SEC tournament and in the NCAA tournament would create mini-revolutions throughout the on-line community, and harsh arguments among bickering fans.  Not this year.  This year is different.  This year, we celebrate beating any team.  This year, "moral victories" actually happened.  This year, tough losses were both bemoaned and celebrated.  This year, an 11-seed was cause for an almost giddy pleasure.  This year, Kentucky was almost mid-major-like it its expectations.  One thing, however, remains a constant -- this year, as in all other years immemorial, losing in the NCAA tournament is a big disappointment.  That is good, and right, and as it should be.

So what made this year different from others in so many respects?  Well there are many things, as most of you are aware -- the injuries, player defections, a new coaching staff, lots of young players struggling to learn a new system.  What made all that special was an amazing, mid-season turnaround that saw the Cats will themselves into an NCAA tournament team after digging themselves into an almost insurmountable hole.  But what really grabbed the savage heart of the Big Blue Nation was the remarkable transformation of Ramel Bradley and Joe Crawford, our two graduating seniors.  After being much-maligned and largely written off as highly-touted players who failed to sniff their potential, both Bradley and Crawford suddenly emerged in the SEC portion of the season as not only the leaders of this team, but the heart of the team.  They both earned all-SEC honors, and our coach shared Coach of the Year in the SEC.  When our great freshman Patrick Patterson went down with injury, these two young men refused to let the team implode, and took them on their backs.  Their determined, relentless play inspired the younger players, and we got bigger and bigger contributions out of Perry Stevenson, Derrick Jasper and Ramon Harris as well as others including A.J. Stewart and Michael Porter.

But if there was one player most responsible for providing the vehicle for the turnaround of this Kentucky team, it was Patrick Patterson.  Patterson was amazing all year long.  Even when the rest of the team was ineffective, Patterson was dominant.  He was the linchpin around which this team was able to recreate itself, and without him, Coach Gillispie would not have had a fulcrum for the lever he used to move this team out of its rut and into one of the great turn-arounds in Kentucky (or for that matter, college basketball) history.  Despite the cruel late-season injury that sidelined him, Patrick Patterson represents the future of Kentucky basketball, and that future is very bright, indeed.

It has been a long time since a Wildcat team captured Kentucky fans' hearts like this one has.  No, this team will not be celebrated like the Unforgettables, but these Alley Cats will be remembered, perhaps in the same cognitive moment.  Whenever we think of what "heart" looks like in a Kentucky team, this team will instantly spring to mind, perhaps along with others and perhaps not.  Future Kentucky teams are hereby placed on notice -- we know what heart looks like, and determination, and relentlessness.  We have in our minds a picture of a real life team, this 2008 team, and its scrappy, leave-it-all-on-the-floor determination.  We will notice if you do not deliver.  More talent you may have, more skill and more strength.  But to capture the imagination of the Faithful, it requires much more, and we know exactly what that "more" looks like.  This 2008 Kentucky team has raised new standards of determination and effort, and we will want to see you, the future Wildcat teams, embrace and defend those standards.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the amazing year Coach Gillispie had.  From the depths of being heartily wished elsewhere to the heights of being fully embraced by the most engaged fans in the nation, Gillispie has experienced in one year the full measure of what it is like to coach here for many years.  It took previous coaches as long as ten years to get that full experience from love to disgust, and very few have made it back from disgust.  Gillispie managed it, and did so with a lot of class.  I think I should give Mitch Barnhart some credit here, too, for sticking with Gillispie when it would have been easy to abandon him in the face of ridiculous rumors and inexplicably bad basketball.  This has been a year unlike any other in my memory, and that memory stretches back to the last years of Adolph Rupp.

But today, we mourn the passing of the 2008 season even as we celebrate the remarkable team that rebuilt itself, Transformer-like, from the wreckage and spare parts of the pre-conference season.  Marc Maggard's site is asking for Wildcat fans to welcome the team home tonight, as they arrive at 6 PM this evening at Bluegrass Airport.  I recommend this to all fans who can make it, as this team has much earned a "Welcome home," not as conquering heroes, but of valiant warriors who fell in battle defending the honor of our great tradition.  Our two great seniors deserve all we can muster up for them.

Great season, gentlemen.  Well done to all.  Joe, Ramel -- we will really miss you and wish you had another year.  For the rest, next season begins tomorrow, lace 'em up.  Basketball never ends in the Bluegrass, and in the new season, our expectations are going up.  Are you up to the challenge?