Blue Pride: Wildcats Leave Mark Despite Loss

March 28th, 2010
Kentucky fans typically aren't ones for moral victories. After all, when your program has 2,023 victories, 13 Final Four appearances and seven national titles, you get accustomed to winning where it matters most...on the scoreboard.

But this year has been different. A new coach. A new system. New players. Even new uniforms. So it stands to reason that even though disappointment abounds in the Bluegrass State following the Cats' hard-fought loss to a gritty West Virginia squad in the Elite Eight, there's still plenty of reasons for the Cats to still hold their heads high.

Let's rewind for a moment. Last year, the Cats finished 22-14, following a loss in the third round of the NIT. The regular season featured a home loss to Virginia Military Institute, a bitter loss to hated rival Louisville, and separate three and four-game losing streaks in conference play. Rumors spread all season about a growing disconnect between the players and Coach Billy Gillispie. For the first time in a long time, boos intended for the home time were heard at Rupp Arena. As a whole, the team lacked fire and intensity, and their talent level was hardly indicative of what people expect from a Kentucky roster. To say the program was in turmoil would be like saying John Wall is kind of fast.

Now jump back to the present. Gone is the surly Gillispie, replaced by a coach whose personality couldn't be a better fit for the high-pressure environment in Lexington. Gone are the one-dimensional role players who populated the roster last year, replaced by future first-round draft picks.  And 22 wins?? These Cats hit that total by the first week of February.

So it goes without saying that the turnaround in John Calipari's first year in Lexington was nothing short of remarkable. Starting three true freshmen and introducing a new system, all under the white-hot glare of the rabid UK fan base, Calipari succeeded beyond any reasonable expectations. The Cats not only won, but as Wall has said, they "brought that swagger back" to Lexington. The fan base, which had grown disenchanted after two tumultuous years under Gillispie, came back, bigger than ever. The Cats were on the cover of magazines. They were taking phone calls from the President. Even a five-second shimmy by Wall during Midnight Madness blew up, turning into a national phenomenon known as the John Wall dance. (and before I get angry e-mails... yes- I know the dance originated with a Louisville rap artist. But it was Wall who made it famous, so he gets the credit, at least in my eyes).

Sure, the winning was important. The Cats hovered in the top five all season, and were thought by many to have the most pure talent of any team in the country. How deep was the roster? Freshman Daniel Orton, who averaged only 13 minutes per game, is thought to be a first-round pick this year if he decides to leave. When the NBA Draft rolls around in June, there could be as many as five Cats who hear their name the first round. As far as talent goes, this team was flat-out loaded.

But it was more than that. Sure, the Cats won, and won a lot. But it was the manner in which they did it. Whether it was Wall using his blinding speed to trigger one-man fast breaks, or Eric Bledsoe converting layups at impossible angles, or DeMarcus Cousins dusting off hard fouls with a big smile on his face...there was just something very likable about this team. Junior Patrick Patterson, a preseason All-American, took on a smaller role to accommodate the freshmen. Senior Ramon Harris, who averaged nearly 23 minutes per game the last two season, happily accepted a reserve role, content to carve out a small niche for a winning team. DeAndre Liggins, a heralded recruit whose effort and attitude were inconsistent as a freshman, became a terrific glue guy off the bench, often hitting the floor for loose balls and playing terrific defense all season. This was a team that just seemed to enjoy playing together, and consequently, they quickly won the hearts of the fans.

Even Calipari, who has had his detractors, got in on the act. He quickly embraced the public-relations portion of the job, and even the biggest cynic had to admire the energy and effort he put in to get the fan base excited. He spent the summer touring the state, shaking hands and reaching out to fans in a way that Gillispie never did. He welcomed ESPN's College Gameday for a visit, and drew over 20,000 people for the show. He started a Twitter account, and before long, had collected over one million followers. He even took it upon himself to organize a fundraiser to aid the relief efforts in Haiti following the earthquakes, and raised over a million dollars. In terms of endearing himself to the fan base, Calipari was a slam dunk.

So what do you get when you add talent, charisma and swagger? A title contender, that's what. The excitement in Lexington built all season, and was at a fever pitch by the time March rolled around. The Cats were on a mission, and three straight blowouts to open the tournament only added to the euphoria. The stars seemed to be aligning perfectly for the Big Blue.

Then West Virginia arrived. Abysmal shooting from the Cats combined with a red-hot perimeter attack from the Mountaineers, and all of a sudden, the ride was over. The Cats were headed home, their season ended far sooner than anyone expected. For UK fans, it was like the rug was pulled out from under them. All season, it looked like this team was destined for a title, and then before they knew it, it was done.

But unlike other tournament losses for UK, this one felt different. Sure, it's disappointing to see the season end short of the Final Four. Nobody, least of all UK, begins the season with a goal of getting to the Eight. Everybody wants to win the title, and falling short of that stings, no matter the circumstances. But a look at the big picture should soothe the ruffled feathers of UK fans.

The Cats did more than just win 35 games this year. They won by having fun, by playing together, and by playing the right way...characteristics that any fan can appreciate. The Cats' fast-break offense may make the highlight reels, but it was their lock-down defense that enabled them win this year. The dunks may have gotten the crowd going, but it was their pinpoint passing that enabled them to get to the rim in the first place. The roster may be loaded with future NBA players, but those players weren't above hitting the floor for loose balls. The talent was undeniable. But it was their effort and heart that set them apart. This wasn't just a collection of one-and-done kids. They were a team, in the truest sense of the word. And by setting that standard, by achieving at a high level through effort as much as talent, they've set the program up nicely for the future.

So even though they didn't hang a banner, this team left their mark on Kentucky. They rallied the state behind the program again. They ignored naysayers at nearly every turn by believing in each other. They set aside egos for the good of the team. And even though some of them may only be around campus for a few more months, they endeared themselves to the fans as much as any player in UK history. At a defining time in the program, fresh off several disappointing seasons, they put UK basketball back on the map, and that's not something that can be erased by one bad night.

After all, you don't need to cut down the nets just to prove you're a winner.