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This season began like any other: an elite recruiting class, a wild and exciting Big Blue Madness, and an entertaining first few exhibition games.
After the honeymoon period wore off, however, there has been no secret this season just hasn't felt the same.
Kentucky fans have been outspoken about how this team just didn't feel like past Calipari teams. Rupp Arena has had poor fan turnouts, student participation has been down, and the overall feel around the program has just been "meh."
Countless people on Twitter mentioned still being emotionally invested in the football season as a big reason for their lack of enthusiasm, but riding into late non-conference play with football season long gone, it was much of the same. The Virginia Tech victory was a breath of fresh air, and the UofL blowout felt like the kickstart the team and fans needed, but when we got to the SEC, back to ground zero. The Big Blue Nation just "couldn't get into it."
Lack of star power and inconsistencies have been the main culprits. Individual single-game efforts are impressive, but short-lived. Kevin Knox has been the team's biggest "star," but inconsistency has limited him from being the team's go-to guy on a nightly basis. He has had eight games of 12 or less points, including five without cracking the double-digit mark. In five losses this season, Knox has made just 25 of 60 baskets, good for 41% from the field. In those same games, he is 7-28 from beyond the arc, good for just 25%.
Hamidou Diallo was seen as the other potential superstar on the roster, but his tendency to play hero ball and commit costly turnovers have been devastating to the potential team success. He's had breakout performances, including a four-game stretch in late November and into early December where he averaged over 20 points and four rebounds on 53% shooting. The talent and potential have been there, but the consistency hasn't.
Nick Richards dropped 25 points and 15 rebounds against IPFW just six games into the season and was easily the best player on the floor that day. But people don't remember that. The fans remember Richards averaging just 5.1 points and 4.2 rebounds per game in SEC play, the foul trouble, and the missed gimmes at the rim.
With PJ Washington, Quade Green, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Wenyen Gabriel, etc., it has been much of the same. Excellent individual moments throughout the year, but not any complete performances from top to bottom.
Against West Virginia, however, things just clicked. For everyone.
Knox broke out as the superstar we all knew he could be coming into his Kentucky career. From the tip, West Virginia had no answers for the Wildcat forward, as Knox was able to dominate with his shooting stroke and finishing ability at the rim. His aggressiveness from start to finish allowed him to finish the day with 34 points and seven rebounds on 11-17 shooting (5-8 from three.) Knox's stellar performance was UK's first 30-point game of the season and the team's first since De'Aaron Fox put on a show in the NCAA Tournament against Lonzo Ball and the UCLA Bruins. It was the most points scored by a Wildcat in a true road game against an opponent in the top-10 since Melvin Turpin dropped 35 at No. 9 LSU back in 1984.
Fans needed a superstar, and they got one.
Last night, Nick Richards got exposed to start the game, as he gave up several easy buckets in the paint and looked lost with the ball in his hands yet again. After one missed dunk in the first half, Kentucky fans (including myself) were ready to see him take a seat on the bench and not get back up. Instead of getting down on himself and falling victim to the moment, Richards came up big when the team needed him most. He was clutch at the free throw line, finishing 5-6 on the night, including four consecutive makes to tie the game back up with just over seven minutes remaining. Up three with 33 seconds left, the Kentucky big man sealed the victory with a putback dunk, shutting doubters up in the process. Like many other Wildcats last night, he rose to the occasion in the second half to finish the epic comeback.
Hamidou Diallo took just eight shots, converting on two acrobatic layups and a massive corner three to cut the Mountaineer lead to seven. Despite shooting just 62% from the free throw line this season, Diallo hit 4-5 shots at the charity stripe, with each make coming in the team's comeback effort in the second half. Instead of trying to take the game into his own hands, he put his teammates in position to make plays, and converted when they did the same for him. He played winning basketball.
When the offense slowed down, Quade Green knocked down back-to-back threes to cut the deficit and took over point guard duties when turnovers got out of hand. When the defense needed a big stop, Wenyen Gabriel came up with back-to-back blocks in the paint. When the team needed a rebound, Jarred Vanderbilt grabbed eleven of them in just eleven minutes of action. Everyone stepped up for one common goal, something fans have been begging for from the start of the season.
When we saw Vanderbilt jog up to the scorer's table for the first time against South Carolina, it was invigorating for the fanbase. Seeing a player so talented have the game he loves taken away from him twice with freak injuries, and then come back and genuinely look thankful to be on the court was special. That passion for the game of basketball has been contagious for his teammates. He has added energy to the court, and other Wildcats have fed off of that. Last night, Vanderbilt's intensity on the glass and fight for every loose ball made every player on the court play winning basketball.
Throughout the year, it didn't look like this team was enjoying themselves on the court. If the team isn't having fun on the court, fans don't have as much fun watching the games. Fans want to see the smiles, the excitement, and the celebrations. They want to feel a personal connection to the players through that passion. During their epic comeback, we finally got to see all of that. The Cats are starting to have fun on the court, and it has led to the bright personality fans have wanted to see out of this young team for months.
This is still the youngest team in college basketball, and one of the youngest in NCAA history. The rough patches are almost certainly not over, and there will be more frustrating moments to come. That being said, fans got to see the potential of this team in an incredibly hostile environment against an incredibly talented and experienced basketball team. They faced the adversity teenage basketball players need to see and found a way to overcome it. It might sound cliche, but the Wildcats grew up right before our very eyes, and it put dreams of a deep NCAA Tournament run right back in the picture.
If this game didn't do it for you, I'm not sure what else will.