Given the tone of the conversation regarding the game last night between the #4 seeded Kentucky Wildcats and the #1 overall tournament seed Ohio St. Buckeyes, you would think that Kentucky, the winningest college basketball program in America, had become St. Johns or something -- a once-great program that was really not expected to do much in the 2011 NCAA championship. Apparently, the loss of the four fabulous freshmen last year was simply too big an obstacle to overcome, and Josh Harrellson, DeAndre Liggins and Darius Miller were the functional equivalent of the Jordanaries, the group of so-called "ordinary" players who once surrounded the great Michael Jordan when he played for the Chicago Bulls during his championship years.
Harrellson, Liggins and Miller were the insignificant others, the relatively untalented guys who took up the other required spaces on the floor in for this year's Kentucky team. Oh, you would hear the occasional praise of Miller's periodic scoring outbursts, Liggins' defense, or Harrellson's radical improvement, but it was always with the subtext, nay, more of an implicit understanding, that these guys were inferior players pressed into action by Calipari's Travelling Recruiting Circus.
.What nobody was ready for was the passion and absolute intensity that this Kentucky team would bring to the floor last night. Everyone except a few unrealistic Ohio St. fans expected a close, hard-fought contest, but nobody would have imagined that Kentucky would be able to guard the dead-eye Buckeyes so efficiently. Nobody dreamed that Josh Harrellson, a completely unheralded player who played 88 minutes last season, would fight the mighty Jared Sullinger to a draw.
One thing that I noticed last night is that the NBA guys who are doing commentary on the games this year, Charles Barkley, Greg Anthony and Kenny Smith, understand something that many college basketball observers have apparently forgotten -- just exactly who Kentucky is, and what those letters across your jersey mean.
Barkley played his college basketball at Auburn University, and he has not forgotten who Kentucky is. Barkley's Auburn Tigers managed to defeat Kentucky only 3 times in 8 tries. Smith never got to play against Kentucky while he was with the North Carolina Tar Heels, but fellow blue-bloods know and respect each other. Greg Anthony likewise never played versus Kentucky, and picked Ohio St. last night, but he understands perhaps better than the others what the Blue and White represent for college basketball.
John Calipari famously said that no amount of money would have kept him in Memphis when Kentucky came calling. Why do you suppose that is? It certainly isn't the cold winters in the Commonwealth, or the stiflingly humid summers. It isn't for the horses, and it isn't for the bluegrass. Calipari would not be kept away because this is the Blue Legend of college basketball, the pinnacle of the sport, the greatest and most storied program in NCAA basketball history. This is Kentucky, a word that is literally interchangeable with college basketball.
But according to the experts, this year's team was too thin, too young, or had too many role players to get past the mighty OSU, a team that had lost only two games all year and had obliterated the competition in the first two rounds as though they were cardboard cut-outs rather than actual college basketball teams. Meanwhile, Kentucky struggled with the Princeton Tigers (a vastly underseeded team that was far more talented than most observers thought) and had a tough game against the inimitable Bob Huggins and the West Virginia Mountaineers.
The experts were wrong, and the reason is this -- we are Kentucky, and this is what we do. College basketball is all we think about, all we care about at this time of year. It is bred into the bones of this state, more so than in any other place in America. The immersion of the fans of the Commonwealth in this sport has an impact on its players, and not just because they turn out in droves to see them no matter how far away they play. Players who come to Kentucky discover that the passion and adoration of the fans for this program are a source of great strength. Disappointing all these people, who genuinely care about the game, and who feels each loss or win as keenly as any player, seems unthinkable. It provides a powerful, and unrecognized motivation to everyone surrounding the program.
This victory belongs to the team, but also the the Kentucky fans. No matter what happens from here on, this season has become a celebration not just of achievement, but of over-achievement. Harrellson and Liggins' compelling story are now a part of the vast volumes of lore surrounding this most storied of programs. They will be remembered forever for their effort, for their poise, for their passion. Association with Kentucky basketball can make you immortal, and even though that is also true of other great sports programs, very few of them are non-professional.
Welcome to Kentucky lore, Josh, Darius, and DeAndre. The freshmen will be there also, particularly if they return, but the real memories for this year will be about the empty uniforms that weren't empty at all, but imbued by the indomitable spirit of the Commonwealth that sparks the life of this legendary program. Calipari gets credit for great coaching too, of course, but this one is for the unappreciated, the looked-down upon. This one is for the guy that people think are unworthy, or uncontrollable, or too weak of mind or talent.
This game, this victory, is for you, upperclassmen. Enjoy every minute of it, because we will be enjoying it for the rest of time immemorial.