I’m a fan of Kentucky basketball. My mother was born and raised in Kentucky and attended the University of Kentucky. For as far back as I can remember, I’ve rooted along with Big Blue Nation. As a member of a family with the patriarch a Notre Dame graduate and my mother and her two brothers attending the University of Kentucky, and being the jock that I was, I was torn for quite some time between playing basketball for the Wildcats and football for the Fighting Irish. Upon receiving a rejection letter from the latter, my allegiances recently have been shifted to the former institute of higher learning.
My first memories of UK basketball are full of highs and lows. Their victories brought me elation and their losses disappointment. I fell in love with Tayshaun Prince and Tubby Smith, and I probably cried when Kentucky was upset by UAB in the 2004 tournament. Kentucky was always the best team in the country and were always going to win the national championship, at least according to my bracket. I will always remember going to a game against American at Rupp Arena when I was in fourth grade; being in the nosebleed section was absolutely not an issue. I was a byproduct of my lineage; citizens of the bluegrass state live and die with their Kentucky basketball.
As the years went by my interest began to fade with the decline of the program. The powers that be in Kentucky have little patience and very high standards. After a few years with little results, fans wanted the lovable Tubby Smith out, and eventually he was let loose. Billy Gillispie filled in but just as quickly left. The program then took a giant step in the right direction with the hiring of John Calipari, the former coach of Memphis and UMass, leading both of those teams to great successes that were later revoked due to academic violations.
With the hiring of Calipari and the NBA’s implementing of the rule disallowing anyone under the age of 19 from entering the league came the era of the “one-and-dones” in college basketball and in particular at Kentucky. While there are many players that only play in college for one year, John Calipari—and Kentucky by association—are well known for one-and-done players. These are the best players in the country that should be in the NBA but are forced to be in college for at least one year.
There are many opponents of the one-and-done philosophy, and many people hate Kentucky fans just because of their association with said philosophy. Some people argue that they would much rather watch a player grow and mature over the course of four years as opposed to constantly being forced to root for a new team year in and year out. A great example of someone that might say this is an Ohio State fan that might be at a loss without their wonder boy Aaron Craft next year. Even Coach Cal has admitted that he doesn’t like the era of the one-and-dones, but that he will continue to ship players in and out because it’s the most surefire way to end up with the most talent on one squad. While he knows how great his team would be if his superstars stuck around for a few years, he won’t hold them back from their dreams of playing in the NBA, as well as making copious amounts of money.
For me, though, I have come to enjoy rooting for this ever changing, never static team. Kentucky has had some of the best recruiting classes in the history of college basketball in just the past few years. Because of this, the teams are always stacked with talent. This talent can almost guarantee entertainment but not necessarily success due to the young age and inexperience, comparatively speaking, to their opponents out on the floor.
With the Kentucky team in these last couple seasons, you never knew what you were going to get. Some teams were able to come together as a whole and enjoy success, but others were never able to identify and implement what it was that would take their game to the level necessary to be competitive amongst the best in the nation. Kentucky’s season outcomes have ranged from a national championship to a loss to Robert Morris in the NIT.
Most years, though, have seen relative success in the tournament. Everyone expects a national title at the beginning of the year, especially with such a talent-laden team, but with all the great teams in the country, a run in March is all a fan can realistically ask for. Kentucky fans have, for the most part, been treated well under the reign of Coach Cal. In his first year, with the likes of John Wall and Demarcus Cousins, Calipari led his team to the Elite Eight but was ousted by West Virginia. The next year, with less talent, the Wildcats made an improbable run to the Final Four with a victory over heavy favorite Ohio State. After that year was the national championship game win over Kansas under freshman phenom Anthony Davis. Last year saw Kentucky not even make the tournament and lose to RMU in the first round of the NIT. And then there is this year’s team.
Kentucky started the season ranked number one due to what many touted as the absolute best recruiting class there had ever been, led by star freshmen forward Julius Randle and twins Aaron and Andrew Harrison. The young age of the team showed though, and with losses to LSU, South Carolina, and Arkansas, and a 24-10 record, the Wildcats fell out of the AP poll by the end of the season.
The team came together and found their groove in the SEC tournament. They lost to Florida in the championship game, but in a way that showed promise and hope. The selection committee gave the team an 8 seed and a second round game against Kansas State. Assuming a win, the Round of 32 foe looked to be the perfect Wichita State Shockers. Despite their recent spark, the chances at a run looked bleak.
Yet here we are awaiting the Final Four, and wouldn’t you know it, Kentucky is in one of the two games slated for Saturday night, having beaten three straight programs that competed in last year’s Final Four. With exciting wins in games that all came down to the wire against Wichita State, in-state rival Louisville, and Michigan, a win over Wisconsin to put UK into the championship game looks like a real possibility.
With so much talent, enough so that even their bench players (Marcus Lee) were five-star recruits from all over the nation, another championship isn’t out of the question. Although the beginning of each year will be full of uncertainty in regards to how well the new team of freshmen will be able to play, I’m willing to take my chances on a dud of a season if it means I can expect this much excitement in March and the tournament, the only part of the season that really matters, on a fairly regular basis. Maybe one-and-done players aren’t all that bad for college basketball and what really is an industry based solely around entertainment for the masses.