Mitch Barnhart wrote a letter to Big Blue Nation earlier today, looking back on the incredible season of Kentucky basketball
and addressing the mistakes that were made in the heat of the moment after the only loss.
The letter is very long so I'll shut up and let you get right to it.
Take it away, Mitch...
For the last few days, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on the men’s basketball season that was. As I know it is for all of you, shaking the disappointment of the season ending two wins shy of where we all wanted it to end hasn’t been easy. But as the days have passed, it’s become easier to remember exactly how special this journey has been.
As I wrote before the Final Four, it was an incredible group of young men that took us on this journey. When they came together before the Big Blue Bahamas tour, we all knew the talent and depth they possessed. Very quickly, it became clear they were intent on fully realizing their potential and that John Calipari was the coach to get them there.
Early in the season, they performed on the biggest of stages. They were dominant against Kansas and UCLA, showing the power of inexhaustible energy when it’s mixed with the pure joy this team constantly showed in playing together. They handled opponents bringing every conceivable game plan to beat them, demonstrating intelligence and awareness in adjusting to various styles of play.
Seemingly every game, different players stepped up and took the reins. One game Andrew Harrison would stand out, the next Tyler Ulis. Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns didn’t care whether they had two points or 21 even though they were both possible lottery picks, so long as the team was succeeding. Eight players led us in scoring in our first seven games, and it never seemed to matter to any of them, signaling the kind of selflessness and caring for one another that would last the season.
That caring, unfortunately, underwent its toughest test of the season when Alex Poythress went down with a season-ending knee injury. The compassion they showed for Alex immediately afterward, at the North Carolina game later that week and throughout the season, was a powerful example of what it means to be a teammate and truly a pleasure to witness.
In spite of losing Alex — a steadying veteran presence off the floor and game-changing player on it — they marched on. They kept their composure in some of the most hostile road environments I have ever seen firsthand, surviving tough tests at Louisville and throughout Southeastern Conference play. All the while, the pressure intensified as the calendar reached January, February and March and their record remained unblemished.
Unquestionably, Kentucky was the biggest story in college basketball this season. The spotlight is always bright here, but I have never seen anything quite like what this team faced. They were dissected and analyzed from every possible angle, with experts breaking down how they could be beaten and wondering whether they would be able to stay together. They fielded question after question in facing an unprecedented media blitz, never saying a word to start even the smallest controversy.
The clutter, as Coach Cal predicted it would be, was everywhere, but they tuned it out under his leadership. In doing so, they gave us some unforgettable moments. They played overtime games and rallied from late deficits, always finding ways to win with clutch plays on offense and some of the best defense I’ve ever seen. They won in dominant fashion too, creating some of my favorite moments when they cheered as the third platoon closed out the final moments of big wins.
All the while, they represented our athletics department, school and state in a way that made us all proud. With incredible demands placed on their time, they remained dedicated students and combined for a grade-point average of 3.129 in the fall. Just as impressively, these young men recognized the impact their high profile allowed them to make on the lives of others and embraced it. For every story like Marcus Lee visiting a sick child in the hospital that comes out publicly, there are a dozen more that happen without anyone ever knowing.
As the regular season closed and they remained unbeaten, we celebrated an SEC championship. As they won the SEC Tournament with Nashville overtaken by the Big Blue Nation, we did the same. All the while, they kept their ultimate goal of a national championship at the front of their minds. In the NCAA Tournament, they were able to shift their attention fully to their pursuit of that goal.
In front of huge UK crowds in Louisville, they advanced past Hampton and won a physical battle against Cincinnati. Moving to Cleveland, they overwhelmed West Virginia and once again showed their will to win against an excellent Notre Dame team. In winning the Midwest Region, they gave Coach Cal his fourth Final Four trip in five seasons and made him one of three coaches in NCAA history to earn that distinction. Truly, he has been responsible for one of the greatest runs in our program’s illustrious history and I can’t say often enough how happy I am that John is our coach.
Against Wisconsin, the latest Final Four trip and the undefeated season ended. I won’t go into detail about the game itself because it still hurts, but I do want to talk about what happened afterward.
Speaking from my perspective, the end came before I could even process it. One moment we were up four, the next Wisconsin was celebrating. Everything our players had worked for all season was over in a blink. The emotions were overwhelming for me, and I wasn’t even between the lines. I cannot imagine what that must have been like for the players who had shouldered a heavy burden all season long. Doing so at age 18-22 is even more difficult to fathom.
The actions of some of our players in the aftermath of the game were not acceptable and have been addressed internally. As a family, we keep matters like this in house and I am proud of the way John runs our program. These things remain inexcusable, but they came in the heat of the moment and do not reflect the true character of our players.
But just as we learned valuable lessons in unselfishness from the successes of this team, we learn lessons in forgiveness and how to respond to adversity from the way the season ended. These lessons apply whether you are a fan supporting this university, a player returning for next season or going on to the NBA, or me as an athletics director.
Standing on the pedestal afforded by being at Kentucky comes with privileges, there’s no doubt. We enjoy the best fan support in the country and great facilities and resources that give us the opportunity to compete for championships annually. Scrutiny, however, accompanies all this. Even after doing the right thing for six months, a faction will quickly pounce on a split-second mistake. For this reason, we must be constantly vigilant. Missteps, however, are inevitable. We must be aware of that fact, able to respond in a positive way and able to forgive those missteps when others make them. As Coach Cal says, we are not machines.
In closing, I refuse to let a single bad night take away from everything this team accomplished both on and off the floor this season. These players have given a great deal not only to the fans that followed them, but to the game of basketball. I believe history will reflect that.
With Coach Cal leading us, our program has a bright future. Before we move into it, let’s take one more moment to celebrate the season we all just had the honor of being a part of and thank the players and coaches who made it possible.
‘til the Battle is Won,