Friday, December 21, 2012

Kentuckian of the Year: Honorable Mention

It is rare to have a year with so many strong contenders for Kentuckian of the Year.  In fact, I am confident that in most years, everyone on our list of Honorable Mentions did more than enough to capture the crown themselves.  But this was not an ordinary year.  Kentucky loves its basketball, and the local teams have never put on a show like the one we saw at the beginning of the year.  UK and U of L both made the Final Four -- the first time that's happened since 1975, and it set up the only Final Four meeting between the Wildcats and the Cardinals.  Meanwhile, Murray State went an unbelievable 28-1 in the regular season -- and then won the OVC Tournament and their first game in the NCAA's, to give the Racers their best year ever.  Even Western Kentucky got into the act, parlaying a coaching change into a late run that took a team that finished the regular season with a record of 11-18 all the way to a first round matchup with the Big Blue.

On the whole, it was a magical season for Kentucky basketball, and as a result, this year's list of outstanding Kentuckians is even more basketball-oriented than usual.

But we start with Jennifer Lawrence, the star of The Hunger Games and Silver Linings Playbook.  She had a pretty good year.  The Hunger Games made $686.5 million at the box office, she is likely to receive an Academy Award best actress nomination for Silver Linings Playbook, and she was just chosen by Ask Men magazine as the most desirable woman in the world.  And it all got started in Louisville, where she was born on August 15, 1990.  Like many Kentuckians, she grew up in a family obsessed with sports.  As her mom put it in this great article from Louisville Magazine, "In our family, everything was about sports.  If she could've thrown a baseball, we would have been able to tell that she could pitch.  We just didn't recognize her talent."  But the Lawrence family wanted to make their girl happy, they could tell she was obsessed with performing, and they finally took her to New York on spring break when she was 14 years old in an effort to get the entertainment bug "out of her system."  The rest is history.

Next up is Tom Jurich, the Director of Athletics for the University of Louisville.   Jurich is so good that he could probably make this list every year, but even by his standards, 2012 was a great year.  A few years ago, it seemed nuts to think that Jurich could persuade Rick Pitino to take the Louisville job -- in 2012, Pitino took the Cardinals to the Final Four for the second time.  Not so long ago, Louisville was stuck in Conference USA -- now they are on their way to the ACC.  Not so long ago, Louisville lost a great football coach in Bobby Petrino -- soon Jurich's current hire (Charlie Strong) will be taking the Cardinals to the Sugar Bowl for a showdown with Florida.  Furthermore, Jurich convinced Strong to turn down the Tennessee job in order to stay at Louisville.  And we haven't even mentioned the women's basketball team (went to the second round in last year's NCAA Tournament), the baseball team (went 41-22 with a trip to the NCAA Tournament), or the softball team (went 55-5 and also made the NCAA tournament).  Just another in a long series of great years for Cardinal athletics since Jurich's arrival.

Closer to home, we honor Steve Prohm, the head basketball coach at Murray State.  Prohm, who had been an assistant at Murray, took over when Billy Kennedy left to take the job at Texas A & M.  Murray has a long history of replacing successful coaches, but no one could have expected what Prohm has done.  So far, his record is an unbelievable 40-3, for a winning percentage of 93.0.  That's higher than John Calipari (45-5, 90 percent) or Rick Pitino (40-11, 78.4 percent) have put up over the same time period.  I don't care where you are, or what kind of competition you face, starting your career 40-3 is pretty good.  It seems likely that Murray will soon be looking for another new coach -- but Prohm has already given them their best season ever, so they won't have much room to complain.

Speaking of basketball coaches, the 2011 Kentuckian of the Year -- John Calipari -- had the best year of his remarkable career, as the Cats went 38-2 and won their eighth national title.  We spend a lot of time writing about Calipari on this blog, but we will take this opportunity to emphasize that everything the Cats accomplished last year was a lot harder than it looked.  On the whole, I think what Calipari did with his young team was one of the best coaching jobs I have ever seen.  But what he did after winning the title -- from taking the trophy on a tour of the state, to putting together another great recruiting class, to telling us that his real goal is to catch UCLA in national titles -- was also spectacular.  Some people complain that college coaches make too much money, but I am convinced that Calipari is underpaid.

Finally, we honor Anthony Davis, who is simply the best basketball player I have ever seen at UK.  I have no idea how he will do in the NBA -- a lot of what goes on in that league appears to depend on whether or not you get to play for an organization that knows what it's doing.  But I cannot remember any freshman -- including Carmelo Anthony, Michael Jordan, or Patrick Ewing -- who so overshadowed the rest of the college basketball landscape as Anthony Davis did last year.  He won awards as the Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA Tournament, the AP and Naismith National Player of the Year, and a consensus First Team All-American -- and he deserved every one of them.  He will also be remembered by UK fans as one of the nicest, hardest-working, most unselfish Cats ever to take the floor.  I'm sure UK will have a lot of great players in the future, and I look forward to watching them.  But I won't compare any of them to Anthony Davis, because I don't expect to see another player like him at UK for a long, long time.

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