Thursday, March 12, 2015

Kentucky 67 - 50 Florida (No. 2,171)

When I was a kid, barber shops were great places for sports fans.  They would usually have these big schedules for the local teams -- in poster form -- showing the games for each season.  They were always sponsored by someone, they were always prepared in this very formal style, and they usually included the exhibition games, as if whoever put them together didn't know that much about sports.  So you would get something that looked like this:



Date                        Opponent
Nov. 22, 1976: Marathon Oil (Home)
Nov. 27, 1976:  Wisconsin (Away)
Dec. 2, 1976:  Texas Christian (Home)

And on like that.  Games against SEC teams would usually have "(Conf.)" after the opponent, so that you knew that was a conference game.

I was starved for sports facts growing up, and I used to devour these schedules.  My favorites were the ones where someone at the barber shop (or the drug store, or the gas station) had taken the time to write in the score for each game.  Sometimes the schedule encouraged this sort of thing, with slots for "KY" and "OPP" where you could fill in the score.

Eventually, I started making my own schedules.  I would wait until the Paducah Sun-Democrat (as it was known in those days) would publish the schedule in November, and then I would pull out my old manual typewriter and laboriously type up a schedule in the same formal style I had seen on the posters.  I would carefully type in "(L'ville)" for the annual game in Freedom Hall, and I would put in "Conf." or "SEC" after the conference games, just like you were supposed to.  And then I would tape it to my desk, or tack it to my wall, and wait for the new season.

There was so much possibility.  All those games.  What could happen?  I would always check to see when the Cats were going to Knoxville, and then I would look to see what big non-conference games (other than Indiana) would be on the schedule.  So much excitement.  And then the season would start, and you would start filling in the scores -- usually big victory margins at the beginning of the season, and then usually a close score for the Indiana game, and on and on until March.  I would usually write a "W" or a check mark next to the wins, and sometimes I would keep track of the running won-loss record.

I am a true sports nerd, so I never grew out of this habit.  You can make a pretty neat schedule with Microsoft Excel.

But here's the thing:  in all these years -- 40 seasons of watching the Cats -- I never got to fill out a whole schedule of wins.  No matter what happened, no matter how good UK was, there would always come a time where the score in the "OPP" column would be greater than the score in the "KY" column.  (Some years this would happen so often that I would simply tear up the schedule and throw it away -- not wanting to see those depressing scores.)  Still, I never gave up the dream I've had ever since I was nine years old -- that someday, somehow, the Cats would get through the whole season with no losses.  A perfect string of W's, or check marks, or whatever you prefer.

So as this year has gone on, I never bought into the whole theory that Kentucky would be better off losing a game.  Yes, it's possible for a team to learn from a loss.  Yes, winning the NCAA Tournament is more important than going undefeated in the regular season.  Yes, we lost in the SEC Finals in 1996 and 2012 before rolling through the NCAA's.  I know.  I've heard it.  But whenever I thought about losing this year, I kept thinking that you can't win all your games unless you actually win all your games.  At some point, you have to lose your fear of jinxes and weakness and root for something transcendent to happen.

I don't know what will happen to Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament.  As years of these reports should have made clear, I am often wrong about what the Cats will do next.  Last year, I thought they'd go out in the first round of the SEC and the NCAA Tournaments, and they went to the finals of both.  In 2010, I thought they'd win it all, and they lost to West Virginia.  So I'm not going to make any predictions.

But I will say this:  going 31-0 in the regular season meant a lot more to me than I thought it would.  I've seen Kentucky do almost everything, but I had never seen them finish an undefeated regular season.  They've only done it one other time, and that was in 1953-54 -- long before I started watching.  But I did see Indiana have a perfect season in 1976, and I've always wanted Kentucky to do the same.

So when the Cats finally blew open their game against a tough and gritty Florida team, I found the whole thing to be extremely emotional.  There is something about seeing that schedule, with every game marked off as a win, that nothing else can match.  It just requires so much fortitude, and discipline, and talent, and luck, to win every single game -- including 10 road games, including trips to Louisville, Knoxville, Gainesville, and Baton Rouge.  There's a very good chance that no one my age will ever see Kentucky do this again -- and I feel very fortunate to have seen it at all.

But that wasn't the only reason I felt so emotional.  This was the last game of the year at Rupp, and there is no question that a lot of Our Heroes will not be back next year.  What an extraordinary group of young men they are -- Karl-Anthony Towns, who was the MVP of this game, with 13 points and 9 rebounds in only 27 minutes; Willie Cauley-Stein, who has somehow become the Wily Veteran for this team.  The relentless Harrison Twins, who are now 60-11 in their time at UK, and who will be regarded as legends in 15 or 20 years.  Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker, who have sparked so many rallies and scored so many big baskets in only one season.  Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee, who bring so much talent and energy to the wars down low.  And Trey Lyles, who put up 14 points and 6 rebounds, and who appears to have a much higher ceiling than I appreciated.  It has been an honor to watch them all year, and to see such talented people playing for our Commonwealth team.

It's important to remember, of course, that Kentucky basketball was great before any of those guys came to Lexington.  It was great before Coach Calipari came to Lexington.  And we all hope and pray that it will continue to be great long after this current group of heroes is gone.  So it's important to pay tribute to the ongoing traditions of the program.  Historically, the last home game of the year is Senior Day -- a chance to pay tribute to those players who have devoted the full period of eligibility to the program.  Of course, Kentucky has no seniors who get significant playing time -- our Senior Class, if we were still under the old rules, would include Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who have been gone for years.  But Calipari was smart enough to respect the tradition, and so he started the game with Sam Malone, Tod Lanter, and Brian Long in the line-up -- and he put all three of them in at the end as well.  The crowd loved it (as they should), but the players got a kick out of it as well -- and I appreciated this tribute to the fact that Kentucky basketball is bigger than any of us.

So now we have the Tournaments, and the Weight of History hanging over all of us.  It hasn't been a great Tournament season for Kentucky fans so far -- Morehead lost to Murray by three points, Eastern lost to Belmont in overtime, Murray lost (and had a 25-game winning streak broken) by one agonizing point, and Western lost to UAB by (you guessed it) one point.  It's tournament basketball, which is designed to break your heart, and these things happen.

In a sense, the whole point of Tournament Basketball is that it's not fair.  "Yes, yes, we know," says the Tournament, "that you did all these great things in other gyms on other days.  But none of that matters at this point.  If you want to be considered Truly Great, you have to perform NOW, in the glare of the spotlight, no matter how what statistics tell us about the importance of luck."  And if you can do it, you become a legend.  And if you can't, everything you did before is diminished.  Believe me, I get it -- I've known this was the bargain ever since I saw UK beat an undefeated Indiana team in 1975.  But whatever happens, I want to remember this game and this triumph, in large part because I may never see it again:

31-0.  18-0 in the SEC.  No games left in the regular season.

(There is no more countdown, by the way.   In the Tournaments, every game is its own season.)

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