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.