There was never any question who the heart of this Kentucky basketball team was. He (likely) ended his UK career with 8:03 to play Tuesday night lying on the floor of the O-Dome screaming in pain (maybe the saddest, most horrible sound I’ve ever heard). If that was the last play for Nerlens Noel as a Wildcat, he ended his brief but stellar UK career the way he had spent almost of all the 23-plus games before the injury – hustling and blocking a shot. As the heart of the team he also played his last play the way he had all season – like the heart of a fat man, beating harder than it should have had to trying to will a body farther than it seemed like it wanted to go.
And as this UK team plays its first team without its original heart, it’s high time that it spends some time searching its soul.
The second most disheartening part of the video of the Noel injury that Julie Quittner of the Gainesville Television Network posted Tuesday night (after the injury itself, of course), is the fact that when Noel’s knee buckled, he was the only Wildcat on his end of the court. Go on. Watch it again if you dare. I’ll wait.
Julius Mays – one of maybe three players who DIDN’T spend all of Tuesday night playing like an extra in a Walking Dead episode – makes a bad, lazy pass that gets intercepted and leads to the trouble. He comes closest to making mid-court. Archie Goodwin gets up to a jog. Kyle Wiltjer doesn’t even run. And I can only assume there was a fifth player on the court; he never gets in the shot (given the camera sweep, the only place he could have been was SO deep in the left corner as to have never been in the play in the first place).
The entire sequence is a fair metaphor for how this season has looked. Outside of Noel, Willie Cauley-Stein and Jarrod Polson this is a team that has all too often looked listless, disinterested and – for some – more concerned about what comes next than what’s happening now.
Without Noel to fall back on, The Cats are faced with a choice about who they want to be and how they want to finish a nearly lost season. We’re no longer talking about having to “turn the corner.” This team is now on a completely different street. They can either reinvent themselves, play with the kind of energy that we have seen far too little of this season and find their way into the NCAA Tournament. Or – if the recent mock selection media exercise is an indication – decide whether they want to play their NIT games in Rupp or Memorial Coliseum.
An NIT trip would be a long way to have fallen from a Top 5 pre-season ranking (that Cal rightly insisted was too high) and a season that started with a great deal of hype surrounding another ballyhooed recruiting class and bizarre alpha-numerical constructions like “D9asty.” (How do you even pronounce that, Dee-NINE-a-stee? What’s that even mean?)
Maybe it’s appropriate that the Cats will play today in an alternate uniform –one they haven’t played in so far this year. Their only hope to move this season forward is to show as a different team from any they’ve been so far this year.
Sometime shortly before the Presidential election, unfunny comedienne/trollbeast Lena Dunham (whom I had legitimately never heard of to that point) produced a creepy, hypersexalized video encouraging young people to vote for the first time. It was SO creepy that it was released by the President’s own YouTube channel. Because it’s what I do, I railed on about how it was disgusting and inappropriate (which it kind of was). I thought I was just bitter because it clearly promoted the candidate that I didn’t want to win and who I knew was going to win easily.
As time went on though, I realized it was more than that. I realized that it was because I had wasted my first vote all those years ago on a bad candidate with a giant, bushy eyebrow who was destined to lose himself (Michael Dukakis). I wasn’t put out by the Dunham video because it was trashy (it was) or because my candidate was going to lose (he most certainly was). I was put out by that trashy troll video because for years I had carried the scar of wasting a vote on that undeserving unibrow, hoping one day to have the opportunity to make it up to unibrowkind.
You may have noticed there aren’t many chances to vote for a unibrow candidate. I’m not sure what it is about the political process, but since Dukakis they’re sort of all been weeded out. That’s why I was so excited when I received an e-mail from Mark Story of the Lexington Herald-Leader with my ballot for the 2012 Kentucky Sportsman of the Year (or maybe it was because it was the first sign of validation of me as an accepted member of the local sports media…I mean seriously, not even ONE celebrity golf tournament — hint, hint?).
So vote I did. We were asked to pick 10 sports figures with Kentucky ties from a list of nominees and rank them in order, with comment if we saw fit. Here’s my ballot, 1-10. Redemption is finally mine.
Anthony Davis – Davis not only had the best year of anyone involved in sports in Kentucky, he may have had the best year of anybody in the country. NCAA title, running the Player of the Year table, top draft pick and an Olympic Gold Medal? That’s a solid effort.
- Nick Nicholson – It can’t be easy to be charged with guiding a state treasure like Keeneland through the difficulties faced during Nicholson’s tenure, but he did it beautifully and always with a tremendous sense of humor.
- Tyson Gay – I honestly thought Gay’s career was over a year ago, and thought injuries had sapped him of enough speed that the Olympics were out of the question. His comeback, despite narrowly missing an individual medal, is one of the year’s most inspirational stories.
- Dennis Emery – Before Mitch Barnhart – when Olympic sports didn’t have it nearly as good at UK as they do now – Emery built a winning tennis program. The 30-year career he closed with an undefeated season will go down as maybe the most underappreciated coaching tenure in UK history.
- Teddy Bridgewater – Before the 2012 football season, I said I didn’t know what the big deal about Bridgewater was. It was maybe the stupidest thing I’ve ever said – and that’s a pretty wide open field.
- Wesley Korir – I’ve always been impressed by marathoners and Korir is a great one, but his work at home in Kenya is what sets him apart from other athletes in this field.
Mitch Barnhart – Lexington’s biggest fan lightning rod has built an athletics department that few could have imagined and he reinvigorated a frustrated football fan base with a home run hire.
- Randall Cobb – When Cobb went to the NFL I expected him to be good, but not breaking all-time Packers records good. It’s not like it’s all-time Bengals records or anything.
- Lee Kiefer – Kiefer went to the Olympics as America’s top foil fencer. And while I may still have no idea what was going on, her quarterfinal run had me glued to my TV.
- Dale Romans – Dullahan, Shackleford AND Little Mike, and nine graded stakes wins? If anybody had as much success in 2012 as Anthony Davis, it was probably Romans.
So finally — a mere 20 years later — I have finally paid my debt to unibrow society. My voting mind is finally at ease. That said, I still think Lena Dunham is a trollbeast.
The Kentucky Sportsman of the Year will be announced Thursday, Jan. 31, at the second annual Bluegrass Sports Awards at the Marriott Griffin Gate. Also that night, First State Financial Sunday Morning Sports Talk co-host Larry Vaught will be honored as the recipient of the Tom Hammond Kentucky Sports Media Award. Anybody who listens to the show or reads Larry’s work at the Danville Advocate-Messenger or at vaughtsviews.com knows how richly deserving of the honor he is.
Well, it’s been a much more peaceful week among Wildcat faithful, free of all the handwringing and prophecies of doom that circulated around the football program after the opening loss to Louisville. The problem is that since I wasn’t able to listen to (much less host) last week’s edition of First State Financial Sunday Morning Sports Talk (9 am-Noon Sundays on NewsRadio 630 WLAP), I have no idea if that’s due to apathy, Kentucky fans obsessing over a pair of bizarrely scheduled exhibition basketball games or if Kentucky’s win last Saturday over Kent State has bought the team – and head coach Joker Phillips a week’s worth of breathing room.
I hope it’s the latter. It SHOULD be the latter (although I honestly fear it’s the basketball game thing). Yes, the Kentucky win was only over Kent State — a lowly MAC team, but if you followed the (for entertainment purposes only) line and the overall mood of the Kentucky faithful, it was a big win for Kentucky. Picked by 7 points at home, Kentucky beat a MAC school the way you’d expect an SEC school to beat a MAC school – by 33.
Don’t get me wrong, the win didn’t eliminate questions about the Cats. They did still give up 409 total yards to that MAC team. That said the defense held the Golden Flashes scoreless for the last 22 minutes, something that seemed implausible regardless of the opponent after a Traiyon Durham touchdown run for Kent cut the UK lead to 17-14 in the third quarter. So did the defense figure something out or did Kent wear down? If the defense did figure something out, will it stay figured out this week? If Kentucky has had one major issue consistently over the last five or so years, it seems like it has been carrying momentum over from one week to the next. They’ll have to do that today against Western Kentucky.
Last week Western didn’t have a single three and out series against Alabama; and, well, Alabama. That said, they also didn’t score. This isn’t the same Western offense that featured Bobby Rainey at running back a year ago. And while Kentucky clearly isn’t Alabama defensively, I think we all believe they are a fair amount better than the Austin Peay team (from the Football Championship Subdivision) that Western ran over in week one.
I don’t have questions about the UK offense. Max Smith is developing into a star. Don’t take my word for it. Ask former Kentucky quarterback and current graduate assistant coach Andre Woodson, who raved about Smith this week. He’s completing 73% percent of his passes (up from just over 50% last year) and has already thrown for 634 yards. The only thing you’d like to see Smith do better at this point is hit a deep route. He’s oh-for-the-season in that department. He throws the ball too well for that statistic to last.
The running game found some form last week behind big runs from Raymond Sanders, finishing with 185 yards as a team. Was some of that the Kent defense getting worn down? Maybe, but the yards count just the same.
Beyond that the offense, which was near the bottom of the national statistics in plays of over 20 yards last year, scored from more than 30 yards out three times a week ago.
Even with the win over Kent State and the relative peace in Wildcatland, the dynamic for Kentucky – especially for its coach is no different than it was a week ago. Watching this Kentucky team play – especially on offense – it is clear that the Cats have some outstanding young players. If Joker Phillips wants to be around to coach them, he needs to win games like today’s against the Hilltoppers. At its best Kentucky has very little margin for error in an average football season. The Cats have to win non-conference games and hope they can get two wins in conference to go to a bowl. With the loss to Louisville, that math only gets them to five wins, which depending on how Kentucky competes with its SEC opponents may be enough to keep Phillips around another year (and it should). A loss puts the season into panic mode.
Finally, I hope Joker and the staff played the “they supposed to be SEC” clip from last year’s broadcast on a constant loop this week – in the weight room, in the training room, in the study hall, at team meals. Even though they eked out a win last year against Western, Kentucky players should see that and be embarrassed. If you hope to play football with the big boys, you can’t be getting legitimately smack-talked by a Sun Belt team. Not even a good one.
If the Cats have made the progress I think they have in the last two weeks it shouldn’t be an issue tonight at Commonwealth.
Cats by 13.
Before the season started, I mentioned on the show that there was a chance that by the time Kentucky saw highly touted Arkansas in Week 7 (Oct. 13) that the Hogs could be in complete disarray and ripe for the picking. Is there any doubt that’s the case after last week? Arkansas lost its starting quarterback (at least for the time being) and eventually lost the game to Louisiana-Monroe (we all know how that feels, right?). And while ULM may be a good team (as of this writing they are hanging with Auburn), they still shouldn’t match up with an Arkansas team player-for-player. If we learned anything at Louisville, it’s that following Bobby Petrino and coaching a team he recruited isn’t the easiest thing in the world to do. And current Arkansas head coach John L. Smith didn’t even change the offense. This could be an issue Arkansas has all year long.
Win or (God forbid) lose; join me, Larry Vaught and Anthony White tomorrow on First State Financial Sunday Morning Sports Talk from 9 am-Noon on NewsRadio 630 WLAP and wlap.com. We’ll talk all about the game and what’s next for the Wildcats. We’d love to have you join us.
As I mentioned a couple of months ago, I’m terrified of flying. It’s why I don’t watch TV shows about plane crashes or movies that involve plane crashes (although I did watch Cast Away. I have no explanation for this.). I figure if I convince myself that I’ve never seen one happen, I can pretend that they don’t exist, get on the plane, believe in telekinesis and get where I need to be.
After early afternoon football viewing, I’m afraid I may have to extend my “no plane crash shows” rule to a “no teams Kentucky plays” rule.
I entered this season – and last week’s game against Louisville – with a great deal optimism. I gave Kentucky a chance for somewhere between five wins and seven with seven on the VERY optimistic side. That said three of those wins (even to get to five) were against Louisville (already lost), Western Kentucky (next week’s opponent) and Mississippi State.
It’s Mississippi State that has caused today’s consternation. I watched almost their entire game this afternoon, and either Auburn is really bad, or Kentucky is in big trouble on October 6. I’m REALLY hoping it’s that Auburn is awful.
The Bulldogs’ offense honestly isn’t anything to write home about, but they gashed the Auburn defense on simple runs many times. Unless Auburn’s defense is worse than what Kentucky showed against Louisville (and that hardly seems possible), Miss State could feast on the ground against UK.
The Bulldog defense was just as impressive in holding Auburn to just 216 total yards, but that may be because Auburn quarterback Kiel Frazier kept throwing the ball right to them.
That brings us to Western Kentucky. Sure, they’re getting housed by Alabama today, but they did gain 15 yards on one play at one point. Even as good as the UK offense looked at times last week, how many times did they gain 15 on a play…and, you know, Alabama. (By the way, being in Bowling Green at game time and watching WKU fans flood restaurants decked out in Hilltoppers gear to gather to watch their team get drubbed was borderline inspirational. I hope it’s like this when my beloved NKU Norse tip off their first Division I basketball season later this year.)
The truth is it may not matter for the Cats by October 6 when Mississippi State gets to town, or next week against Western for that matter. If Kentucky doesn’t win and win big tonight against Kent State, the howls for head coach Joker Phillips’ job will be deafening. I shudder to think what it would be like should UK lose. A lot of people (me included on First State Financial Sunday Morning Sports Talk) said that last week was maybe the most important game of the Phillips era. I no longer believe that, only because in the situation Phillips finds himself in, whatever game he’s playing immediately becomes the most important.
Mark Story of the Lexington Herald-Leader wrote a great column early this week talking about how Joker likely needs a 2006 Rich Brooks-level rally to maintain his job. That year I remember calling Ryan Lemond on what is now Big Blue Insider on NewsRadio 630 WLAP (before I worked for the station) before the third game of the season (Ole Miss) that if Kentucky didn’t win that game, Brooks was as good as gone. Kentucky won that one two weeks after getting dominated by Louisville in the opener (sound familiar) and went on to beat South Carolina, Georgia and Vanderbilt to reach the Music City Bowl, starting a run of five straight Kentucky bowl appearances and making Rich Brooks a legend in Lexington.
The problem for Joker is that with this defense, I just don’t think this team has that kind of run in it. It’s shockingly hard to win if you can’t stop anybody. After the debacle at Louisville, coaches talked about the defensive problems being alignment and assignment issues. The undercurrent being that they were problems that could be corrected. I think to a certain extent, I’d rather have them say Kentucky got physically whipped. Sure it’s unlikely to get better, but it doesn’t paint a picture of a team that doesn’t know what to do when it hits the field.
I am a big Joker Phillips fan. He’s a UK alum and his love of the university and the football program are undisputable. After seeing Max Smith and the offense last week, I’d be inclined to bring him back next year regardless of outcome if it were my decision to make. However, he’s paying the price for the well-documented vanishing recruiting class of 2009 that has left Kentucky thin at important positions (yes, I know he was the recruiting coordinator then. Calm down). Unfortunately, without big results when they are “expected” – starting with tonight against Kent – and some surprises down the road, that may not be possible. And having seen one of those “surprise win” teams play today, I am much less optimistic about the Cat’s chances as the season goes on.
I am in Bowling Green for the Special Olympics Kentucky State Softball Tournament, so Ryan will be sitting in with Anthony White on Sunday Morning Sports Talk tomorrow. If you’re interested in seeing what Special Olympics is all about, I will be calling two games on the Special Olympics Kentucky On-Line SOKY TV outlet.
I have a confession to make. It turns out that even I can only manage so much sports hate, and it seems that I don’t actually hate Louisville, at least not unconditionally.
Maybe it’s my age, but since my college fandom pre-dates any meetings between Kentucky and Louisville, I don’t have the same animosity for the Cardinals that I have for, say, the Michigan Wolverines and for professional teams like the Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens (old Browns — hahahahahahahahahaha) and the Los Angeles Dodgers (the Reds’ rivals of my childhood). In fact, my first college football game wasn’t a Kentucky game, but a Louisville game at Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium. I cheered for Howard Schnellenberger and Browning Nagle against Alabama in the Fiesta Bowl. I really liked Denny Crum’s basketball teams through the 80s.
And it’s not like I’m not capable of finding hate in my little sports heart for a new rival. Since Major League Baseball pissed away decades of history and realigned into three ludicrous divisions (not to mention adding interleague play) and separated my beloved Reds from the sub-human Dodgers, I have learned to hate the St. Louis Cardinals just as vehemently as I ever hated Ron Cey, Davey Lopes and Steve Garvey (as a catcher Yeager was exempt from all hate and I try not remember that current Reds manager Dusty Baker was on those teams).
I just can’t seem to work up a good, solid, consistent, hate-filled lather for Louisville.
Oh, there have been (and continue to be) times when I have hated Louisville football and basketball, and I’m sure there will be more in the future. It’s just that my hatred of the college Cardinals is more personality-driven. I can’t stand Louisville basketball now — not because I dislike them in general, but because I can’t stand Rick Pitino, and not because he left Kentucky and went to Louisville. I honestly couldn’t wait for him to leave Kentucky when he was in Lexington, both for the way he handled Rod Rhodes (a move he has repeated endlessly at Louisville) and for his constant denial of NBA interest like everybody in Central Kentucky was stupid.
And oh how I hated Louisville football during the Bobby Petrino era. And I don’t just now think he’s a jerk after his flameout at Arkansas. I sort of feel sports hipsterish about my Petrino loathing. The first time I ran across him (at a press conference for a Governor’s Cup Classic golf outing) he just oozed jerkishness. It wasn’t Elliot Uzelac-level jerkishness to be sure. I mean, he never yelled at me, but it was jerkishness just the same. When Petrino left (under cover of darkness or whatever), my Louisville hatred waned (because hating a Steve Kragthorpe-coached Cardinals team would be like hating puppies or some other harmless thing).
Here’s the thing. Just because I don’t spend all my time obsessing over how much I “hate” Louisville, it doesn’t mean I don’t desperately want Kentucky to win Sunday’s football game. I do. And I really believe that they can. I explained why last week in my post relaying my increasing optimism about this season. If anything’s changed since then, I have only gotten to be more hopeful about the upcoming campaign. Here’s a quick recap.
1) Maxwell Smith: He was the better Kentucky quarterback last year and he’s a year farther along in the program now. If you aren’t excited by everything you hear about him out of the UK camp – from both players and coaches – then you don’t want to be excited.
2) The receiving corps: Embarrassed by last year’s performance and joined by some players of the playmaker caliber they lacked a season ago, expect them to be greatly improved.
3) The offensive line: Healthy
4) Overhyped opponents: I don’t buy that Louisville and Vanderbilt have somehow gotten so far ahead of Kentucky that those aren’t games Kentucky can win. I watched most of the South Carolina-Vanderbilt game. Nothing either of those teams did – other than one hit that drew a penalty – was all that impressive.
I can’t wait to see what happens Sunday.
Me and the Governor’s Cup
Believe it or not, I actually know what it feels like to lift the Governor’s Cup. Once upon a time I was one of the first people to lift the trophy. During my years working for Host Communications (now IMG College, which runs the Big Blue Network) I was one of about four people to help carry the trophy into a photo shoot for the cover of the first Governor’s Cup game program. It was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. Imagine dropping that bad boy a month before the game. Plus it is danged heavy. An old Trivial Pursuit question claimed that the Davis Cup was the heaviest trophy in sports. I have to believe that was written before the Governor’s Cup came into existence.
Saturday night one of the aging heroes of American sports showed off his arm. No, I’m not talking about Roger Clemens. I’m referring to defending Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart’s epic helmet toss after being involved in a wreck with Matt Kenseth at Bristol Motor Speedway.
So, the question is, who threw it better? Take a look:
What do you think?
So Lance Armstrong has given up his fight against the US Anti-Doping Agency regarding alleged use of performance enhancers during his seven-year run as the Tour de France champion. In his statement following his decision not to go to arbitration with the USADA Armstrong continued to proclaim his innocence, branded the investigation a witch hunt, invoked his hundreds of negative drug tests and insisted his decision to discontinue the battle was based solely on fatigue from years of fighting.
There are plenty of questions about what’s going on with the USADA. And while Armstrong has clearly made some powerful (as well as pathetic – I’m looking at you Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton) enemies over the years, he maintains some powerful supporters – namely the international and US cycling federations, who both backed Armstrong in his Federal lawsuit against USADA that was recently thrown out, although the judge in the case expressed some sympathy for Armstrong’s predicament.
Regardless the end result will be that the USADA will declare Armstrong guilty and it is likely that his Tour titles will be officially stripped, although no matter what you have read to this point that hasn’t happened yet. The USADA – regardless of what it says – lacks that authority. The International Cycling Union (UCI) will have to do that, and to this point UCI chief Pat McQuaid has backed Armstrong.
This whole long, sordid episode ends in two competing realities. The first is that Armstrong – despite his protests – likely is guilty. The second is that doesn’t matter if he is.
Look, I get that he’s never tested positive –the standard acclamation of the most fervent Armstrong supporters. He could test negative 500 more times and I wouldn’t care. To believe that Armstrong wasn’t involved in blood doping is to believe in the Tooth Fairy. Armstrong was the most unbeatable competitor in the world’s dirtiest sport over a seven year span. To accept that he wasn’t involved in the filth is to believe that Sammy Sosa could go from a skinny, speedy gap hitter to one of the greatest power hitters baseball has ever known merely by taking vitamins. It requires the same level of suspension of disbelief that was required to accept that Keanu Reeves was a nuclear physicist. Sorry, I can’t do it.
I just don’t care that he did. Cycling — especially road cycling to me – is different than baseball or even track. The route for the Tour and other major races changes every year. Nobody ever says, “(Insert cyclist name here) just completed the fastest Tour de France in history.” Why? Because the overall time isn’t linked to any significant historical marker. That’s a huge departure from baseball and track, where every player, every accomplishment is measured against not only those in that day’s game, but every other feat in the sport’s history. Sosa or Ben Johnson being dirty matters in the scheme of the greater history of the sports; not so with Armstrong.
The other reason is problematic for me as a parent. It centers on the “everybody was doing it” concept that I consistently tell my kids isn’t a good enough reason to so much as cross the street. But the reality is that everybody – or almost everybody – WAS doing it. So in the context of the seven Tours he won, Armstrong remains the greatest cyclist of both those races and of his era of domination. Among those “cheating” Armstrong was still the best trained, strongest cyclist with the best tactics. In a world where everybody was likely “cheating” Armstrong won his races in a way that amounts to fair and square.
But the well-documented Armstrong story goes far beyond the cycling. Whatever the USADA says, and whatever the UCI decides to do (and they will almost have to officially strip the titles), nobody can alter the Armstrong back story, nor should anybody try to. Armstrong’s personal defeat of a devastating cancer will always be real. The inspiration he’s provided to countless other cancer patients will always be of both great comfort and value to those his experience inspired through their own fights.
I’m no huge Armstrong fan (although I admittedly did get caught up in his Tour run). Other than his appearance in Dodgeball, he doesn’t come off as a very endearing figure and is usually described as kind of a jerk. But in the end, both on the bike and off, the question of did he or didn’t he – which will likely never truly be answered – doesn’t matter in the least.