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Stand and Deliver

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This morning, I was reflecting back on this basketball season.  It started with such promise -- A new day in Kentucky basketball, a new coach, a nice top 25 ranking to start off the year.  Hopes were as high as any time I can remember, at least as high and maybe higher than when Traitor Rick took the helm.  Back in those days, enthusiasm was tempered with the realization that all our best players had been disqualified or fled, and all that was left was a rag-tag team of mostly small, athletically-challenged players forced to play the season with no hope of a post-season tournament even in the galactically unlikely event that they won every game.

This season was different.  We just signed a top 25 and a top 50 player, we had a nice nucleus of players coming back from the previous year, and even though there were several glaring holes in the roster, it looked like we would challenge for the SEC championship and easily make the NCAA tournament at the end of the year.  What happened in-between those days in late October and now is enough to fill a book all by itself.  Derrick Jasper and Joe Crawford were coming off surgery in the off season, and Jasper's surgery was much more serious than most Wildcat fans had known.

Then came the shocking losses.  The loss to Gardner-Webb, which had the uninformed wondering why Kentucky was playing a law firm, and more importantly, why they were losing to them at Rupp Arena.  Then came the loss to San Diego, a team from the West Coast Conference, also at home (who at least has a winning record against reasonable competition).  The completely uncompetitive games at Indiana and Houston.  And it wasn't just the losses, it was the fact that Kentucky looked really bad in them, turning the ball over constantly and playing a brand of basketball you are more likely to see in Lexington, Massachusetts than Lexington, Kentucky.  The team was a shambles, the new coach was the subject of many unsavory rumors, and the Big Blue Nation was in a state of disarray.  Then came Jodie Meeks' injury, and things only seemed to get worse.

Then came conference play.  To the surprise of many, Kentucky stunned Vanderbilt in Rupp Arena in a double-overtime barnburner.  Kentucky then dropped two road games to Mississippi State and Florida, both very close affairs which UK had a chance to win.  Then lightning struck twice, and Kentucky defeated highly ranked Tennessee in Rupp Arena.  Since then, the Cats have gone 8-2 in conference and gave then #1 (and now #4) ranked Tennessee the fight of their lives in Knoxville.

As Kentucky began to show a grit and determination more reminiscent of the Unforgettables than any team in recent memory, the rumors surrounding Gillispie began to disappear.  People began believing in the Wildcats again, even falling in love with their never-say-die attitude and the sudden emergence of Ramel Bradley and the oft-maligned Joe Crawford as not only senior leaders, but guys who got the job done on the floor.  People began to think that maybe, just maybe, this team could rise from the ashes of the pre-conference season and make this campaign one to remember.  Then came the injury to Patrick Patterson, and despite the temptation to descend into despair, the Big Blue nation, now accustomed to such disappointments, pulled together.

Which brings us to this moment in time, a point at which the Big Blue Nation has completely rallied around this bedraggled, crippled, iron-man-minutes playing team.  In the post just below, JL dubbed this team the "Alley Cats," and a more appropriate name simply cannot be imagined.  Like their namesake, the Alley Cats are always fighting and scratching for every single scrap, utilizing every survival skill at their disposal.  They know that every game could be the end of all their hopes, and they play them all as though their very lives depended on the outcome.  Their fur is matted and dirty, they don't do anything pretty, and they aren't soft and lovable.  They are the Alley Cats, and the only way they can survive it to ignore the odds, ignore the pain, bare their fangs and claws, scream and leap into battle one opponent at a time.  They are a no-nonsense group that asks no quarter, and yields to no one.  The fight for survival is their stock-in-trade, and every rebound, every basket, every turnover holds their post-season lives in the balance.  They hide their wounded flank as best they can, and ignore the inevitable hurt and injury.  Survival cares nothing for injuries, pain, or fatigue.  It can't be bargained or reasoned with.  It doesn't feel pity or remorse.  It is absolute.

In this disastrous crucible of a season, a new attitude has been forged by sweat, blood, pain, and the heat of competition that Kentucky fans have not seen before, not even in the halcyon days of Rick Pitino.  It is an attitude of total relentless effort and determination, of controlled fury, of fighting through fatigue and hurt.  It is a mindset of achieving the unlikely, of touching the star regardless of the obstacles placed in their way.  It is utterly ferocious and uncompromising, a reflection of the rags-to-riches coach who leads this team.  There are no excuses for lack of effort, no forgiveness for failure to bring it all, every play, every game, every minute and every second. 

These are your Alley Cats, Big Blue Nation, and they will stand and deliver.