UK Basketball – or “What The Hell Just Happened?”
OK, you have got to be kidding right? The winningest basketball program in the country lost its opening game to the freakin’ VMI Keydets. The Keydets, a group not even able to call themselves Cadets, had 13 steals and forced 25 turnovers while throwing up 111 points. This is a team picked to finish 7th in their third tier Big South Conference. Yes, I understand it’s just one game. Yes, I really do. But, unless you are from Kentucky, you may have a difficult time understanding how I (and legions of other UK fans) are feeling right now. You see I bleed blue, and at the moment, I am am bleeding profusely!
I Bleed Blue
It started similarly last year, Billy Gillispie’s squad got bushwhacked by Gardner-Webb in the second game of the season and it was a harbinger of things to come. It seemed to set the tone and even though the team played well during conference play, something was never quite right. This year, I’m sorry, but the home loss in the first game of the season to VMI is even worse. The Cats played right into the hands of VMI’s run-n-gun mentality, even after Gillispie warned in the days leading up to the game that they couldn’t.
I know I have written about this before, but most folks can’t begin to understand the obsession that is The University of Kentucky basketball. As a kid growing up in Kentucky, UK basketball was a near religious experience for me and countless others like me. I can’t even begin to count the number of days I shot hoops alone outside on a frigid winter day, imagining myself a future Wildcat hero, counting down 3 – 2 -1 and swishing a 20 footer from the wing. The summer between my sophomore and junior year of high school, I played basketball every day at my friend Doug’s house until dark. EVERY day. That wasn’t practice mind you, that was just kids getting together and playing in the heat and humidity for the love of the game. Gym rat? Certainly. Obsessed? That doesn’t begin to cover it. As a reminder, I am in now China. I can’t watch the games on TV here and streaming on the Internet with my connection is impossible. Undeterred, I “watch” the games at whatever unholy hour on the ESPN ticker. That’s just how I roll.
The names of former players and coaches are permanently etched onto my small hard-drive of a brain. For me, Rupp is not just the name of an arena. Joe B. Hall, yeah I went to his basketball camps. Bill Keightley? Bill was the equipment manager for most of my life before he passed away recently and I tell you there was never a more beloved man in The Commonwealth. Players? How many would you like me to name in 10 seconds? Dan Issel, Louie Dampier, Pat Riley, Kevin Grevey, Kyle Macy, Jack Givens, Rex Chapman, Kenny Walker, Rick Robey, Jamal Mashburn, Sam Bowie, Tony Delk…I could continue like that for a very long time but I’ll cut you some slack. I have vivid memories of watching the NCAA tournament with my father and grandfather on an old black and white Magnavox and I couldn’t have been much more than 7 or 8 at the time. I watched the tournament for more than 40 years in a row until the streak was broken last year while I was here in China. Kentucky had a tough year, lucky to make the tournament at all before being eliminated by Marquette.
This guy Billy Gillispie, now he may be the greatest thing since sliced bread but I am really beginning to have my doubts. I HOPE I am wrong. I HOPE something miraculous happens and he is able to prove me and any other naysayers wrong. UK just doesn’t lose to the Gardner-Freakin-Webbs and Virginia Military Institutes of the world. An Institute! The UK faithful need to see something from him VERY soon. Hell we ran a good coach (and a better man) out of Lexington recently, and Tubby Smith was winning! With the real estate market being what it is, now is not a good time for a coach to have to sell a house. It doesn’t get easier, but Billy and the boys have a chance for redemption Tuesday against top-ranked North Carolina. I can’t imagine winning that game, and I certainly won’t call it a must win…but…but damn it all somewhere in my heart I WANT, almost NEED, UK to win that game!
Now some folks, even the UK faithful, are going to no doubt write and tell me to have patience. I admit, on the surface of it all it seems ludicrous to be harping after one game. I have not drank the Kool-Aid just yet my friends but it is cooling in the fridge.
Coach Gillispie is a self-professed workaholic. Apparently working until 2 or 3 in the morning is not unusual for him. That’s cool I guess but I’ve always subscribed to the old adage that working smart was more important than working hard. In the WMI post-game press conference, Gillispie said, “I attribute this loss mostly to lack of leadership.” Well hell Billy, so do I. Since I didn’t see the press conference, I am only hoping that he is referring to himself and not his young players. Lead or get out of the way, this ain’t Texas A&M or UTEP. This is The University of Kentucky. Buck up Billy boy and show us what you’re made of. Please.