24 hours later, it still sucks. The saying is that time heals all wounds, but at least in my case, the restoration process has yet to begin. Today involved sleeping late, eating a mediocre lunch, making a depressing early drive home from Indianapolis and doing everything I could to avoid any commentary or discussion about the events in Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday night. The loss to Wisconsin still hurts and my guess is that it will for a long time.
Even though Kentucky had a season that was objectively historic and consisted of some of the most exciting moments of my UK basketball fandom, it also feels a bit empty this Sunday evening with the "1" in "38-1" looming large in the record book. I want to be in Indianapolis right now, culminating a long Easter Sunday of celebration with by Big Blue Nation brethren, getting ready for a raucous live show Monday morning and building up to a game that might have been the most hyped of my lifetime...Duke vs Kentucky with a perfect season and a 9th National Championship on the line. What else could possibly have been better? Instead, I am sitting on a couch watching baseball (of all things) and just trying to avoid any mention of college basketball.
It is a reality of human life that all too often what we do is permanently colored by how it ends.
I was once wisely told that the two most important days of your working career at a job are your first and last days in the building. Like some of you, I have had a good job experience blemished by the way that it ended and all memories of my time there unfortunately are seen through that prism. Like virtually all of you, I have had relationships end so negatively that it is hard to think of the many good times that proceeded the fall with that person without being jaded by the final crash that brought the two of us apart. The same is unfortunately true of sports fandom as well. If you are a hardcore UK fan, you may not recollect every game, but you can almost certainly remember how every season ended. Whether it was Dwayne Wade's triple-double in 2003, Simon Says Championship in 1997, Missed threes in Syracuse in 2010 or Dale Brown hurting his shoulder in 1993, the way that great seasons end become tattooed on our brains and stay with us for years to come. That has always been my biggest complaint about the otherwise nearly perfect NCAA Tournament. The stakes are so large and the finality so stark that when it is over, it tends to completely engulf everything that happened before it. A season's worth of games and memories can hinge on one bad possession, missed shot or blown call and that moment makes everything that happened before it pale in comparison.
This is especially true this year when this Kentucky team gave us the greatest regular season of my lifetime.
Part of the reason for this is of course the play on the court. The Cats became only the second team in school history to finish the regular season undefeated, and their spectacular play will be the stuff of UK fan legend for years to come. The Kansas beating that began the season, the humiliation of UCLA, the dismissal of UL on their home court, the comebacks in the SEC, that great night in Baton Rouge, the run through the SEC Tournament and the heart attack-inducing victory over Notre Dame, all saw UK player performances of the highest level. But it wasn't just the great play on the court, but the way we followed this team that made the entire year feel so special. Because the goal of "40-0" loomed so large in the back of our minds, every single game felt like it meant something. I can remember pacing on the sidelines at Rupp for a January game versus Ole Miss and jumping in my shower out of nervousness for an otherwise meaningless Saturday afternoon in College Station. In most years, a random loss has little significance, but this year history loomed and thus every game felt like the NCAA Tournament...making the year more stressful but also much more exciting.
Then there was the coverage of this team, bringing Kentucky basketball to the national spotlight like never before. It is not an exaggeration to say that this was the most covered UK team in history
, with the Wildcats the lead topic for nearly two straight months on every ESPN platform imaginable. No matter the day, someone in the national media was talking Kentucky and their opinions, whether good, bad or simply trolling, made this season feel so much more important and meaningful. While you could still listen to KSR after a game to hear discussion, this season also saw UK as a perpetual topic on Mike and Mike, PTI, Around the Horn and profiles of UK players, managers, fans and everything Blue showed up in the New York Times, Washington Post, Sports Illustrated and every other journalistic entity that touches on athletics. While it may have been originally said as a boastful crack to a rival about football, Neal Brown's famous quote from earlier this year was truly correct this season. "We were the show" in college basketball and the entire season revolved around Kentucky and its quest for history.
Throw in all of that coverage and the ubiquitous nature of UK information drowning Kentucky from our local media (KSR included) and we could follow this team unlike any other in UK history. And then when we followed them, we found out that the players were as likeable as any we have ever seen.
Beginning with the Bahamas trip, it became obvious that Willie Cauley-Stein, Karl Towns, the Harrison Twins and all of the other players were as well-rounded off the court as on and that made us enjoy their play even more. It is great to win no matter what, but to do it when you know that the players wearing the uniform genuinely like each other, feel a closeness with the program and in their spare time make an impact on the lives of others...well that makes the victories just feel a little better. The entire season felt like a joyride that we were all a part of, each getting a chance to experience moments that would one day become a part of history. All year long I would have callers and fans say to me, "I will be telling my grandkids about this team" and this was the year that it really seemed it was actually true. A chance to pursue perfection with a group of kids that seemed worthy of that historic standard in every way. It had (to quote Aaron Harrison) the makings of a great story.
Last night however, that story ended and honestly, it doesn't really seem fair. Some can debate the shot clock call, the late decision-making or a play that could have gone the other way, but the reality is that Wisconsin was just a little bit better than Kentucky on one given night. While I think UK is the better team, because of the NCAA Tournament's cruel one-and-done format, that fact is irrelevant. Kentucky was the best team all season and won't win the title, and that wasn't the way this was supposed to end.
What Calipari did this year was unbelievable...to bring this group of talent together, have them sacrifice their own personal glory for the greater good and then see that sacrifice rewarded...well that was how the story should have come to an end. This was the year when Kentucky would finally extinguish the Laettner demons and take out Duke in the final step to a season that would forever entrench this team, one that seemed so worthy of being remembered all time, into not just UK lore, but college basketball immortality. Three shot clock violations and one Sam Dekker step back three last night and now those dreams are shattered. We all objectively know that this team was still great and deserves to go down as one of the handful of the best to ever wear the uniform. But basketball is fickle and even though 38-1 is unbelievable and the historic nature of this team's defensive efficiency and insane winning percentage will always be remembered, we will also unfortunately always recall the sad ending. One can't think of Rupp's Runts without Texas Western. Wall and Cousins' season will always include Bob Huggins. And the Unforgettables never get a moment without at least a passing glimpse of Hill to Laettner.
Even as a grown man with what I hope is a reasonable perspective on life, 24 hours after the game I am still sad. This team had the best season of my lifetime up until the final weekend and accomplished things that will never happen again. I hope in the future I will be able to remember all of those great moments without allowing the last four minutes of a tremendous battle in Indianapolis cloud them. Rationally, I know I should be able to celebrate the unbelievable success without having it tarnished by the disappointing end. However realistically I know that's unlikely and even though this team deserved college basketball perfection, the memory of the final loss will remain. This team deserved to cut down the nets and become a part of history. But unfortunately in college basketball and life, as Snoop once said on "The Wire", "Deserve's got nuthin' to do with it."