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Kentucky Basketball: Why Swagger Matters

There has been a lot of talk recently, both by Coach Calipari and the Big Blue Faithful, about regaining the "swagger" that Kentucky used to have.  Of course, most die-hard UK fans intuitively understand why this is important, but sometimes it gets a little confusing to the more casual fans, or fans who have recently been converted to the Kentucky cause.

Michael Eaves is a die-hard Kentuckian, and wrote one of the articles in Wildcat Tip-off 2009-10 entitled "Destination:  Indianapolis."  Michael talks on his blog today a little bit about swagger, and it's clear to me that he gets what Coach Cal is talking about.

First of all, a little overview of semantics.  When Coach Calipari talks about "swagger," he is not talking about smack-talk, or braggadocio, naked hubris or narcissism.  Those are all bad things, by my lights, and have no real place in college basketball or mature sports discussion except as a rare, momentary, guilty indulgence.

The swagger that Coach Cal and most of our fans want to see back is the confidence of a program that knows where it wants to go, knows it it is headed in the right direction, and knows that it will get there sooner rather than later.  It is an embrace of past glory, learning from past failure, and a determination to apply both in the present.

When basketball players take the court versus an opponent, you can quickly tell who has swagger.  Teams with swagger expect, not hope, to win 100% of their games by convincing margins.  Teams with swagger don't need to thump their chests or denigrate their opponents -- they are not that petty or vain. Teams with swagger have been there before, done that, and are happy to let their attitudes and abilities do the talking.

Swagger is what you have when you know you are among the best at what you do, and you don't need fawning validation of that fact.  It is the quiet confidence of going about your business knowing that, if you give your best, you can overcome any challenge.  Swagger is confidence on steroids -- confidence in yourself, your team, your coaching staff,  your school and your fans.

When you have swagger, everybody can see it without you doing a thing.  It's in the way you hold your head, interact with teammates, and go about your routine tasks.  Swagger emanates from every pore, and is obvious to everyone in the gym the minute you walk onto the floor.  Swagger is not just for games, it is for every day, every moment.  You can't turn swagger on or off, it is binary -- you either have it, or you do not.

Swagger is not bragging, or talking trash, or treating opponents with disrespect.  It is not making bold fashion statements, wearing expensive jewelry, or acting like somebody you're not.  Swagger requires comfort in your own skin and a willingness to take on all comers as they are, not try to produce a faux appearance of confidence by rude or outlandish behavior.

How do we know what swagger looks like?  Well, we haven't seen swagger in a Kentucky basketball team since the 2003-04 team, but the genesis of that was the year before in a team known affectionately as the "Suffocats."

The 2002-03 Wildcats did not come into the season with swagger.  The Suffocats came into the 2002-03 season with a whimper rather than a bang, dropping the second exhibition game of that year to Nike Sports.  I was at that game, and it was one of the more depressing moments I have ever had at Rupp Arena.  That depression would last for another nine games, culminating in a humiliating defeat, 83-61 at Louisville.

Six games later, Kentucky was drifting along.  They were on a six game winning streak, but there was no swagger with the team at this point.  They barely escaped an upset at Tennessee, and coming into the Vanderbilt game, they looked like they were ripe for another upset.

But what happened in that game will live in Kentucky lore forever.  Vanderbilt got out to a 25-11 lead and it looked like my worst fears were about to come true.  Matt Freije was going nuts and the Commodores hit five threes in a row.  The ball-line defense looked more like the "Thank you sir, may I have another?" defense.  The Cats were down eight points at the break.

Something happened, though, in the second half.  The Wildcats found, somewhere deep in the bowls of Memorial Gym's unfriendly confines, the swagger.  When they came out in the second half, I knew something was different, and 20 game-minutes later, the Suffocats were born, having emasculated the Commodores in embarrassing fashion, 74-52 in a game that wasn't nearly that close.

For the rest of that season and beyond, Kentucky's swagger became legendary.  Florida came in ranked #1 in the land on February fourth of that year, and every Kentucky fan present or watching that game knew what who going to win from the moment the two teams hit the floor.  Florida knew it as well, and UK took apart the hapless Gators in a game of such utter domination that it is one of the way-points of UK's recent basketball history.

What UK brought to the Florida game that year, that swagger they found in Nashville, is exactly what Calipari is talking about.  It is the feeling, by everyone present including the opponent, that when a Kentucky team takes the floor, the only thing in doubt is whether the opponent will be crushed into a fine powder and smoked, or leave with a moral victory -- because they won't be leaving with an actual one.