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Louisville’s Ware Says Cards/Cats Rivalry With Kentucky Is “Just Another Game”

gfx - they said itLouisville’s Kevin Ware is already tired of the build-up to this year’s Kentucky/Louisville clash on December 28th.  The junior who broke his leg during last season’s NCAA Tournament says the guys on his team put no extra stock into the game:

 

“It gets old; it’s boring.  It’s just another game.  Nobody’s from here except a couple guys on the team.  We really don’t get into the whole UK-Louisville rivalry.  It’s just another game for us.  A lot of people take it to that further extent, all the UK and U of L bashing each other.  And even with a lot of stuff that they put on us this year, we really don’t care that Kentucky exists.  We just look at them as another school.”

 

What Ware says is true.  This year’s Kentucky/Louisville matchup isn’t going to be played between 10 natives of the Bluegrass State.  Hell, the Wildcats’ one-and-doners don’t even get the chance to build a hatred for the Cardinals.

With the way the two programs build their teams, it’s no wonder the rivalry means more to fans than it does to players.  The fans are from Kentucky and will likely still be in the Commonwealth a year from now.  The same can’t be said for the kids representing them on the hardwood.

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Cats, Calipari Capture Crown Number 8

Something feels a bit more right with the world today.  The reigning national champs in football and basketball are Alabama and Kentucky.  Depending on your own fan allegiances that may be Heaven or Hell for you, but it does feel right.  The two most tradition-rich programs in the SEC in their sports are atop their sports once more.

That hasn’t happened since UK won a hoops title under Joe B. Hall in 1978 and Bama won a football crown the following fall under Bear Bryant.

First, congrats to the Kentucky fanbase.  Call them zealous or fanatical.  Call them spoiled or snobby.  But you must admit no basketball fanbase travels with and supports their team better than Cat fans.  Kansas is the second-winningest program in hoops history yet the Superdome crowd was clearly pro-UK last night.  And Lexington is only about 75 miles closer to New Orleans than Lawrence, Kansas is.

So to those Cat fans who weren’t shot or arrested in Lexington last night — imbeciles — MrSEC’s hat is tipped to you.

Now, some random thoughts rattling around the rim of this writer’s mind this morning:


* Ya think Mitch Barnhart feels pretty good today?  Kentucky’s AD went all in with John Calipari.  Five years ago, Coach Cal wasn’t on Barnhart’s list of job candidates.  But after the complete failure that was the Billy Gillispie era, suddenly the Cats’ athletic director did consider Calipari.  He hired a man who many view as dirty — though the NCAA has never found Calipari guilty of anything — to head up one of the most scandal-ridden programs in basketball history. 

It was a risky move.  For now, it’s paid off as Calipari has not only brought Kentucky its eighth national championship, but he’s made UK the hoops program in America again.  He’s proved to be the perfect fit.  He’s Pitino Part II and it doesn’t look like he’ll be jumping to the NBA anytime soon.

Barnhart took a lot of national heat when he hired Calipari.  Today he must feel all the potshots were well worth taking.


* I guess we know now that a team largely built with freshman can win the NCAA Tournament.  When Calipari began heading down the one-and-done road three years ago, there was debate as to whether a team built with youngsters could hang a banner.

No more.  UK’s starting lineup last night consisted of three freshmen and two sophomores.  Last year, UConn won the crown with three freshmen in its lineup also.

Put the debate to bed.  In the transient sport of college basketball, the teenagers can indeed get it done on the biggest stage.


* But I can’t help wondering about Cat fans’ connection to their players.  You can bet Kentucky’s national championship team will be adored in the Bluegrass State for years to come, yes.  But if Calipari continues to bring in one-and-done types, will Big Blue fans even be able to remember one team from another 20 years from now?

In the old days — and I’m old — fans got to know their team.  They watched individual players grow up over three or four years.  It was easy to say, “Remember that ’83 team with Johnson, Smith, Davis, etc”

Kentucky fans have their eighth title.  No one’s going to be complaining today.  But come 2030 will fans remember who was on the ’10 team as opposed to the ’13 team?  That we don’t know.


*  Calipari’s coaching reputation has improved mightily at Kentucky.  And not just because he won a tournament last night.  Over the past three seasons, UK’s coach has three times taken a group of the nation’s best recruits and molded them into team-first, defense-first units.  In itself that is a remarkable feat.

The players Calipari signs are the best of the best.  They’re used to being coddled from middle school to high school to AAU ball to the recruiting process.  Yet he continues to get them to buy into his team-first mantra.

Immediately after last night’s game, CBS’ Jim Nantz asked Calipari what the national title meant to him.  “It’s not about me,” the coach quickly answered.  And when Nantz began his chat with Davis — the tourney’s Most Outstanding Player — the young big man immediately gave credit to his teammates.

In addition to creating an air of selflessness, Coach Cal gets his players to focus on defense first.  For the most part, these are young men who are used to being The Man in high school.  You don’t get five stars by your name unless you’re putting the ball in the bucket.  A lot.  Yet Kentucky under Calipari has continued to worry about defense more than offense.

Whether you like or dislike the Cats’ coach, you have to respect the way he connects with his young players and gets them to put team over self, defense over offense.


* This Kentucky team was not The John Wall-DeMarcus Cousins Show, either.  Davis was America’s best player.  But he shot 1-for-10 from the floor last night and scored just six points.  UK didn’t miss a beat in their 67-59 win. 

Night after night, UK always found another player who would step up.  Some nights it was Kidd-Gilchrist.  Other times Terrence Jones would lead.  Darius Miller was often the Cats’ saving grace.  And last night Doron Lamb’s outside shooting helped propel UK to victory.

The point being — this year’s team was even “teamier” than Calipari’s previous squads.  Is there any doubt that’s why this is the bunch that brought down the confetti?


* I couldn’t help thinking last night that it must have been a good time to be a Missouri fan.  The Tigers had a terrific year and Frank Haith was named the National Coach of the Year, but a belly-flop to #15 seed Norfolk State brought their season to a bitter end.  The only thing worse would have been to see hated rival Kansas claim a national title.  Instead, it was an SEC foe — a team from Mizzou’s new conference — that broke the Jayhawks’ hearts.  I’m guessing more than one Tiger fan took a little solace in that fact.


* Finally, you have your championship and you can yell, “Scoreboard!” til the cows come home, but UK fans should be prepared for the jibes and taunts of rival fans.  Calipari has seen two previous Final Four teams stripped of their histories.  You can bet the “this one will be vacated, too” remarks will be flying all over SEC messageboards and call-in shows today.

Auburn fans dealt with it after the Cam Newton mess.  Alabama fans have heard it thanks to the T-Town Menswear story.  It’s simply what we do in today’s society.  Heck, the losing party in presidential elections no longer accepts the new prez as their own nation’s leader.  No one unifies under the elected leader, they just continue to fight and undermine.

So be sure that those who detest UK will work long and hard to discredit and downplay this year’s national championship.

That just goes with the territory.

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UK And Calipari To Meet Louisville And Pitino In Semis; How Great Would That Game Have Been In The Finals?

The NCAA Tournament — by its sheer design — creates wonderful storylines and incredible sideshows each and every season.  For three rounds, small schools most folks have never heard of take down a few giants.  Then over the last three rounds, the biggest fish swallow up the remaining guppies which leaves coaches to face their old schools, local rivals to meet, and feuding program-runners to do battle with one another.

Thanks to Louisville’s tight win over Florida on Saturday and Kentucky’s blowout victory over Baylor yesterday, all three of those things will occur in New Orleans at the Final Four:


Coach facing old school: Check.  Rick Pitino versus Kentucky.

Local rivals meeting:  Check.  Kentucky versus Louisville.

Feuding coaches doing battle:  Check.  John Calipari versus Pitino.


The only downside to this  Battle of the Bluegrass State?  It’s slated for the national semifinals and not the actual final game.  And let’s face facts, that would be an even bigger, even better storyline.

Kentucky’s run this season has been dominant.  Calipari is looking for his first ever national title.  What could be better for Cat fans than capturing their first national crown since 1998 against Louisville and ex-UK coach Pitino?

On the flipside, imagine the pain Kentucky fans would feel if their latest “best shot” at a title was undone by those same Cards and that same turncoat — in most Cat fans’ eyes — coach.

Even in a sport that gives us electric, emotional storylines every March, such a set-up would provide the potential for the greatest mood swing in modern sports history.  Toss in the fact that there’s little love lost between Coach Cal and Ricky P and the finals would shatter television ratings records across the Commonwealth.

Don’t get me wrong, Saturday’s matchup will still be a doozy and one bitter rival will send the other bitter rival packing.  Calipari or Pitino will still block the other’s pursuit of a title. 

Oh, but if that Kentucky-Louisville game were still a possibility for Monday’s championship game?  Bedlam.  Complete and utter bedlam.  Suicide hotlines would have to add extra staffing.  Police in Louisville and Lexington would have to unbox their riot gear in preparation. 

Saturday will be fantastic for basketball fans inside and outside Kentucky’s state lines.  But a clash in Monday’s finals would have been seismic.  If only those brackets could be redrawn today.

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SEC Headlines – 10/18/11 Part One

1.  It’s probably not a good thing that this Gainesville columnist is having to tell Florida fans that Will Muschamp wasn’t a hire for one season.

2.  Gator coaches are hoping quarterback John Brantley can return from his ankle injury for the Georgia game.

3.  Billy Donovan says learning how to win will be key for his young team.

4.  This writer believes Georgia should sit defensive coordinator Todd Grantham for the Florida game.

5.  The Bulldogs haven’t been perfect, but they’re in good shape in the SEC East.

6.  Kentucky is feeling the pressure to beat Jacksonville State this weekend.  (Remember, the Gamecocks won at Ole Miss last season.)

7.  The worst state for college football this year?  It’s between the Bluegrass State and the Land of Enchantment.

8.  This writer says there are five reasons why South Carolina can repeat as SEC East champs without Marcus Lattimore.

9.  Bruce Ellington is becoming a jack-of-all-trades for the Gamecock football team.  (No wonder Steve Spurrier poached him.  Kidding.)

10.  Alabama is not “just another game” to Tennessee’s players.

11.  Who helped UT find its running game against LSU?  Quarterback Matt Simms.

12.  Vanderbilt’s James Franklin would like to get to the point where he has just one quarterback and not two.

13.  Vandy’s basketball team is hoping to reach the school’s first Final Four.

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A Calipari Corn Maze In The Bluegrass State

How much do people in the Bluegrass State love John Calipari?  Enough to build a 10-acre corn maze featuring his likeness.  And the likeness is pretty good, too.  For a corn maze.

“Really, we just want to let Coach Cal know how much he means to Kentucky and how much Kentucky appreciates having him lead our basketball team,” said John Kelley, the man behind the maze.

The appreciation UK fans have for Calipari is just amazing.  And to think, if you’d connected Billy Gillispie’s name with the word “maze,” most Cat fans would have had sweet dreams of him freezing in a hedge maze.

With that in mind, here’s a clip of the final scene from “The Shining,” done Benny Hill style.  Nuthin’ to do with nuthin’, but I laughed:



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Calipari Opens Up About Schedule, Record And Expectations

John Calipari was in a talkative mood yesterday, covering a number of topics with the Bluegrass State media.  Not surprisingly, the issue of his vacated wins was on the agenda:


“This is a players-first program.  It’s about our players.  It’s not about me.  They don’t have to put my record anywhere, for all I care.”


Calipari then touched on whether or not his new team might be selfish with the basketball:


“It seems to play itself out.  If you’re teaching them to be good teammates and you’re teaching them to be good basketball players, that doesn’t become an issue.  Especially when you recruit like we are.  We’re recruiting good kids.”


He also talked about the expectation level in Lexington this season:


“We’re supposed to win every game by 30.  That’s OK.  I’m fine.  I’ve had teams that have been underrated.  I’ve had teams overrated.  We’ll become a good defensive team.  We’ll share the ball.  We try to take good shots.  We’ll try to play harder than the opponent.”


And he even shared his thoughts about possible changes that could be coming to the SEC’s conference schedule:


“They should never go to 22 (conference games).  It’d be a disaster at 22. … Sixteen should be fine.  Eighteen is OK.  I’d rather not have it, but if it’s best for the league, I’d say fine.”


Commissioner Mike Slive seems to be in favor of an 18-game league schedule — and as we learned at the recent SEC meetings in Destin — what Slive wants… he usually gets.

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Wilbon Says UK Should Tell The NCAA To

Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon took up the issue of John Calipari’s 500 wins — and whether or not Kentucky should have given him a celebration for them — on ESPN’s “Pardon The Interruption” yesterday.

Wilbon no doubt made new fans all across the Bluegrass State when he said that UK officials should pick up the phone, call the NCAA, and tell them to “go to hell.”

Oh, yeah.  That would be a very smart thing to do.

As you know, UK was at fault for celebrating Calipari’s 500th victory last season when it knew full well that according to the NCAA’s record book he was still short of that plateau.

As a result, the NCAA then tried to remind schools not to ignore its rulings by demanding that UK officials apologize for the Calipari celebration.

Kentucky officials have balked at apologizing.

These two groups are one-upping one another in terms of silliness.  There are times to make a stand in life and UK officials should know that this is not one of those times.  Especially since their initial celebration was half-cocked to begin with.

We’ve said it before: UK officials should just apologize and move on rather than draw the NCAA’s gaze down upon Lexington.

But for all the Wildcat fans who strongly disagree with that take, here’s the clip of Wilbon rabble-rousing.  (Thanks to John Clay of The Lexington Herald-Leader for the tip.)




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Phillips Thinks Perception Of UK Is Changing (But He’s Still Got Work To Do)

Joker Phillips tells ESPN.com that he believes Kentucky football is on an uptick.

“The perception is changing,”
he said.  “We’ve beaten some of the traditional powers in this league.  The thing we have to try to do is do it on a consistent basis.”

That sounds well and good, but is the perception really changing?  Kentucky has been to five straight bowl games, yes, but the Cats also took a slight step backward last season finishing just 6-7.  It was UK’s first losing season since 2005.  Also, the Wildcats have not finished at .500 in SEC play since 2006 finishing just 2-6 in the league last year.

Considering UK’s easy nonconference schedule each year, reaching the 6-win mark necessary for a bowl bid is not all that impressive.

Rich Brooks did an excellent job of making Kentucky more competitive on the gridiron.  His teams finished 8-5 in ’06 and ’07, then dropped back to 7-6 in ’08 and ’09.  Phillips now must stop the backslide and prove that the Cats can indeed move forward, a la South Carolina in 2010.  This year’s roster does not appear ready to make that kind of leap.

Phillips still needs to do two things before Atlanta can become his program’s true goal.  First, UK needs to continue its four-year run over cross-state rival Louisville.  Phillips must continue to prove that his is the top football program in the Bluegrass State if he wants folks outside the state to view UK as a truly up-and-coming program.

Second, to be taken seriously in the SEC, UK must at some point end its 26-year streak of futility against Tennessee.  It’s hard to say, “We’re a big time program,” when a 26-game losing streak to a rival dangles over your head.  Amazingly, even during UT’s recent rough stretch the Vols have continued to master Kentucky.  Sure it would be nice for UK to snap its almost-as-long 24-game losing streak to Florida, but first things first.  The Vols have been in the Wildcats’ wheelhouse the past few years and UK has not advantage of that fact.

Kentucky’s program is more stable these days.  No one can deny that.  But to really change the national perception, Phillips still has some work to do.

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Both SEC Basketball Awards Head To Lexington

The SEC has handed out its Player of the Week honors and both awards went to guys in the Bluegrass State.

Freshman guard Doron Lamb was named the SEC Player of the Week for his 32-point performance against Winthrop last week.  Lamb was a smokin’ 11 of 12 from the field including seven three-pointers in eight attempts.

Point guard Brandon Knight collected the SEC Freshman of the Week award for his 21-point, five-rebound performance against Winthrop.  Knight has scored 14 or more points in six consecutive games.

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