Kentucky Basketball.. Is BACK

January 21st, 2009
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When Michael Jordan returned to the NBA in 1995, he famously announced his intentions with just two simple words - "I'm back". Just two short words, but they carried enough meaning to send shock waves through the sports world.

Perhaps Kentucky needs to look into doing the same thing.

Now, I'm not saying the Wildcats are national title contenders after beating up on a hapless Georgia team this weekend. A 3-0 start in the SEC is fantastic, but it hardly places UK among the North Carolinas, Connecticuts and Dukes of the college basketball world this season.

But two plays stood out in my mind as I watched the Cats throttle the Dawgs on Sunday. They were two plays that meant little on the scoreboard, but were memorable enough to give fans a great feeling about the future.

First, with just a few minutes remaining in the first half, Michael Porter stripped Georgia guard Zac Swansey in the backcourt, and headed toward the basket for a layup. Swansey caught up, and just as Porter left his feet, Swansey delivered the foul, sending Porter crashing into the basket support. As Porter, unhurt, attempted to get to his feet, he was immediately greeted by all four of his teammates, who had sprinted to the other end to help him up and applaud his effort.

The second play came just a minute or so later, when Darius Miller also came up with a steal in the backcourt. As he drove toward the goal, he fed a slashing Kevin Galloway on the other side of the basket, who drew a foul as he tried to lay it in. As Galloway immediately turned to head to the free throw line, he found himself face to face with Jodie Meeks and Patrick Patterson, who both delivered high-fives to go with the huge smiles on their faces.

On the surface, these two plays had very little impact on the game. Two steals, two fouls, a handful of free throws. I don't even remember if Porter or Galloway made the free throws, and that's beside the point anyway. Both plays, in many ways, showed the passion, camaraderie and joy that UK has been noticeably lacking in recent seasons. Both plays sent a clear message to UK opponents- the Cats are back.

Near the end of the Tubby Smith era, whispers grew that the program had lost their air of invincibility, that Tubby's hit-or-miss recruiting efforts had created a stale program that was neither moving forward or backward. That feeling even wafted into the Billy GIllispie era, as his teams suffered some embarrassing setbacks last year before hitting their stride on conference play. With fans looking forward to the promise of a new season, UK promptly lost their first two games this year, including a bad loss at home to Virginia Military Institute.

But instead of  allowing an "oh no- here we go again" attitude to permeate the program, these Cats stuck together, and have slowly replaced that feeling of dread with the joy of watching a team that is quietly meshing together and genuinely cares for one another. Nowhere is team chemistry more important that in college basketball, and getting that established is the first step towards the Cats reclaiming their place among the elite.

No doubt, part of the excitement around the team again is due to the exploits of Meeks, who has quickly erased an injury-riddle sophomore season by thrusting himself into the National Player of the Year discussion this season. His scoring explosions have been well-documented, but what has gone overlooked is his team-first attitude. Meeks continues to answer questions with "we", not "I", and is quick to credit his team for his place in the record books. Watching his teammates mob him after he pumped in 54 points against Tennessee was one of the sweetest moments in UK history, because it showed the togetherness that championships are built on.

But even more than Meeks, even more than the reliable play of stud forward Patrick Patterson, or the shot-swatting of Perry Stevenson, or the toughness of Ramon Harris, is the energy that this team takes the floor with every time out.

Players who hit the floor for loose balls are yanked to their feet by multiple teammates, as the assistant coaches (and occasionally even Gillispie) applaud to show their approval.  A high flying dunk or a deep three produces enough towel waving from the bench players to give Steelers' fans and their Terrible Towels a run for their money. Hustle plays are quickly rewarded with chest bumps and high-fives from everyone on the floor. The extra pass for an easy basket is always followed by a finger-point and "good pass boy!", loud enough for even the television audience to pick up. And record-breaking performances are topped off with more hugs than a family reunion.

Now granted, all the good feelings and high-fives in the world don't overshadow shortcomings between the lines. UK still would like more consistent point guard play and they still lack a reliable third scorer (although Meeks nearly scores enough himself to count for two players). They're still dangerously low on experience, and their rotation seems to change every game.

But watching this team play, watching their hustle and unselfishness, their toughness and teamwork, gives UK fans a glimpse into the future of this program. They're taking the floor with the swagger that comes with hard work and a love of the game. They're playing for their teammates and their coaches, and that teamwork is growing more and more evident with each game. They're playing loose, having fun and giving their fans a reason to believe that they're only going to get better.

So regardless of where this season might end, be it in the SEC Tournament, the Sweet 16 or even cutting down the nets for their eighth national title, this team has already started building their legacy, and more importantly, restoring the programs' legacy.

UK has always been a program that focuses on team accomplishments above all else, and these Cats get that. Playing for UK has always been a privilege that has to be earned every day, and these Cats get that. Playing college basketball for a storied program in one of the best venues in the country is a fantastic experience that should be enjoyed, and these Cats get that.


So while the box score may show simply two steals and three points, the message to the rest of the SEC, and college basketball, is clear.

Kentucky is back.