Going into this season, if anyone had told me that UK would make the Final Four, I would have asked them what drugs they were on. A team that lost 5 draft picks from the year before and had arguably their best player sitting on the sidelines this year doesn't seem like a recipe for success. We had a team of 10 guys, 6 of whom actually played with any regularity.
And yet, here we sit in early April asking ourselves why we didn't win the National Championship after a magnificent charge to the Final Four.
Not the outcome most sane people expected. The season had highs and lows. We were awesome at home, and awesomely bad on the road. But by March, we were a pretty good team. And a late season push led us to the SEC tourney championship. On the backs of our three veterans, Miller, Liggins and Harrellson, we managed to win the SEC tourney. Then we made a HUGELY surprising NCAA tourney run, coming in as a WAY under-seeded #4 in the toughest bracket, avenging last year's loss to WVU, then toppling the best team in the country, followed up by taking out a UNC team that narrowly beat us earlier in the year, setting up a rematch with the team that gave us the worst beating of the season, UConn. By this point, expectations had shifted dramatically. This team went from one that most expected to fall by the Sweet 16 to one that most expected to win the title.
Doomed by a terrible shooting night, both from the field and from the free throw line (gee... sound familiar?), UK fell to eventual champ UConn (and destroying what would likely be the only opportunity for my team to face my wife's alma mater, Butler, and inciting unprecedented levels of trash talking in our house), crushing the Big Blue Nation's dreams of hanging banner #8 for at least another year.
This team of avengers was full of amazing stories, and this already long post doesn't have the time/patience to detail them all, but given the title, we have to point out the transformation of Joshua "Jorts" Harrellson from also-ran who almost got kicked off the team to the glass cleaning, giant slaying, throwing balls through fools' chest, heart and soul of this program.
This transformation started with twitter, of all things. After a dominating performance in the Blue White game, Jorts was looking for a pat on the back from Cal (and a well deserved pat, IMO) that never came. Instead, he was banned from twitter and sentenced to crazy amounts of conditioning.
That punishment led us to the Final Four. Dropping pounds and getting in crazy shape allowed Josh to dominate lesser men in the paint and more than hold his own against better competition. It brought us the Denim-Drive offense, seeing him take guys off the dribble and work a BEAUTIFUL pick n' roll. He went from a guy who we could count on to clean the glass to a legit scoring option.
His underdog story struck a chord in the Bluegrass, resonating with a state that is an underdog itself, especially in the sports world. Kentucky is a special place. Our passion for the Wildcats comes from many places, but I believe our devotion, pride and support comes in large part because it is really the primary thing we have of which we can be excessively proud. We LOVE our Wildcats, and the success they have found. It's a program that doesn't settle for mediocrity. We don't hang participation banners. We hang Final Four and Championship banners. We are crazy. My wife, bless her heart, is from Tennessee, and despite my best efforts to teach and explain, is still perplexed by the rabid following of the millions of UK fans.
We follow our Wildcats because they give us something in which to believe. They give us a rallying point. They give us something that we can show to the world with pride. There are many, many things wrong or depressing or weird about our state. But when it comes to sports, we have our Wildcats, the greatest tradition in all of college basketball. Take practically any measure of success, and if UK is not #1, we're in the top 5. More wins than anyone, the second most national championships, highest program winning percentage, most NCAA tourney games, most All Americans, etc. Hit up the UK basketball wikipedia entry for "The List" and prepare to be wowed.
Simply put, we have the best program. Ever. Yes, there are black marks (numerous probation/violations, scandals, etc., though there are plenty of others with similar records), but top to bottom, no program beats the University of Kentucky men's basketball team. There are some close competitors, but we are the standard bearer.
It's really the only thing Kentucky can brag about, aside from horse racing and bourbon. The Commonwealth is an underdog, and Josh's story represents someone overcoming serious roadblocks on the way to success. This team that no one expected to make the Final Four did so in large part o the back of a perfect example of what we as Kentuckians value: dedication, hard work, commitment, doing the dirty work and persevering when things go bad.
So on behalf of a grateful Big Blue Nation, I want to thank and salute Josh and this entire team for bringing home a long overdue Final Four. It is your surprising success that makes us long for the fact that we narrowly missed out on another title, and that makes it so hard to overcome the loss to UConn. But we take great pride in what you did accomplish, and so unexpectedly. And when Midnight Madness rolls around and we celebrate your success, know that you made yourselves and all of us proud.
We hang Final Four banners. And we will hang yours with glowing pride and joy.