We Woke Up This Way: The Year in UK Basketball
by Kenny Colston
Photos by Walter Cornett
A new job, a pay raise, marriage, having kids... the possibilities are in the eye of the beholder. On the basketball court, those options are drastically reduced. Make the Final Four. Win a championship. Get a few players drafted.
How was 2014 for the men's basketball team at the University of Kentucky?
Make the Final Four? Check.
Have a few players drafted to the NBA? Check.
Win a championship.... really, really close, but still working on it.
Needless to say, 2014 was a good year to be a Wildcat basketball fan.
“I give them an 'A'. A solid 'A,' ” Thomas Beisner, host of Kentucky Sports Television, said. “The only team better than them last year was UCONN. Their grades are good, two guys went in the (NBA Draft) lottery, the rest are projected to go. They participate in community service... all the metrics you measure a basketball team by, they have.”
“Counting the whole year, it would have to be an “A minus,” Rivals.com writer TJ Walker said. “Yes, it was bumpy in January and February.... but it was one of the toughest roads a team has ever faced in the NCAA Tournament. Being able to make that run, regardless of the regular season, means you have to throw (the regular season) out.
“All things considered, the good with the bad, I feel it was an A minus.”
But like any memorable year, Kentucky didn't start out drama-free. Like a too-much-to-drink New Year's partier, the Cats had quite the hangover in January and February.
The Jan. 14 loss at Arkansas, in overtime, off a put-back dunk was the first sign of a shaky year. Two weeks later, a loss at LSU followed. Things got really rocky around Valentine's Day in a loss to rival Florida.
You see, the basketball's team significant other (it's bae, if you will) is the fickle, possessive, full-of-expectations Big Blue Nation. And by Feb. 15, the papers weren't signed, but hints about a separation, if not a full-on divorce, were in play.
Follow that with another loss to Arkansas and a complete meltdown against South Carolina, and well, let's just say the New Year's resolutions were out the window, BBN started thinking Mark Stoops may actually be more attractive than John Calipari and 2014 wasn't looking so hot.
On March 1, the year looked to be in shambles.
“Losing at South Carolina in a very embarrassing fashion,” T.J. Walker said of the worst part of 2014 for the team. “Calipari was thrown out of the game, he looked like he didn't even want to be there. South Carolina had a losing record in the basement of the SEC.... it was easily the low point.”
Thankfully, things turned around. Tweaks occurred. Aaron Harrison put the marriage on his shoulders and shot the Cats into the national championship game not one time, not two times, but three times.
The papers were ripped up, BBN moved back in and the outlook was changed.
If March 1 was the worst day of the year, March 28 was the best, Beisner and Walker agreed.
“On the court, (the best moment was) beating Louisville in the NCAA Tournament,” Beisner said. “Where it is now, it was everyone coming back. It set the stage for this season and changed the tone for last season.”
And if beating baby brother for a second time wasn't good enough, Walker said the Aaron Harrison moments, any of them, would work too.
“Any other shots, you couldn't go wrong with any of those moments,” he said.
From March 21 to the present, not much has gone wrong for the Cats. They made the Final Four when they weren't supposed to, returning NBA caliber talent when no one expected it, destroyed professional talent in a trip to the Bahamas and made Kansas, another blue blood basketball program, look like church league all-stars.
“I think they have a chance to be one of the greatest teams of all-time,” Beisner said. “They truly love each other. When I look back 20 years from now, what I'm going to remember is the bond.
“This doesn't work if the players don't trust each other.”
Kentucky is platooning its way to blowouts over teams good and bad, often blocking more shots than they allow. It's so likely Big Blue brings home banner No. 9, Vegas has them a 7/5 favorite to win it all.
Only Secretariat had more sure-fire betting odds.
Beisner thinks only two or three teams have the talent to unseat King Kentucky. Walker highlights potential potholes against Texas on Dec. 5 and little brother on Dec. 27, if only because it's played at the Chicken Bucket in downtown Louisville.
“I think they will be undefeated going into the Louisville game,” Walker said. “It could be the only one I see them losing. But if I had to guess I'd say they'd finish 2014 undefeated.”
A national runner-up finish, an improbable NCAA tournament run, the return of the Twins, Willie and more and the odds-on favorite to win it all in April 2015 has the Cats, and Big Blue Nation, smiling from ear to ear.
Aaron Harrison became bae, BBN got turnt up again, Cal returned to his swaggy ways and the rest of the nation got salty at the success of those in blue and white.
As the great Beyonce says “We woke up like this (flawless).”
And for everything that 2014 was, next year looks even better.
“Going into 2015, they have a good opportunity to excel at an even higher level,” Beisner said.
2014 didn't start off the way everyone thought it would for Kentucky, but it's not how you start.
It's how you finish.
This article also appears on page 4 of the December 2014 print edition of Ace.
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PHOTOS BY WALTER CORNETT FOR ACEWEEKLY.