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The Greatest Game I Never Saw

Christian Laettner

If I didn’t see it, it didn’t happen, right?

So, Rick Pitino’s Louisville team will face off with Mike Krzyewski’s (and for the 1 billionth consecutive time I had to look up that spelling – by typing in “Duke Head Coach.” Seriously, I can’t even spell it well enough to Google the proper spelling) Duke team for a trip to the Final Four on Sunday. This “lucky coincidence” of the bracket has predictably brought a flood of memory stories and columns about the 1992 UK-Duke Regional Final – the game many refer to as the greatest college basketball game ever played. The great Gene Wojciechowski (also looked up, also without even trying to spell the last name – can’t ANYBODY be named Smith?) called it The Last Great Game in the title of his book on the epic struggle. So I thought it only appropriate that I share my memories of the game as well.

My date that night looked amazing. She had on a gold and black (GO NORSE!) dress and her 90s-era big, curly hairstyle that was all the rage was at its biggest and curliest. And her smile, as always, lit up the room.

That’s pretty much it. I never saw the game. In fact, to this day I haven’t seen more than a few minutes of the game – Sean Woods’ shot to put UK ahead, and of course the Laettner shot that CBS is so kind to show a billion times each February and March. Other than that, I got nothing.

It’s true. In a lifetime of watching sports for sports sake – whether I cared about the game or the teams at all – and of commitment to seeing all of sports’ biggest moments, there is one giant hole in my sports viewing life. I saw NONE of the greatest college basketball game ever played, even though it was my favorite team playing in a huge spot against a team I detest with a trip to the Final Four on the line.

I have a good excuse though…she was so pretty (<- you really need to click that link. I still laugh every time I see it).

I had been living in Texas. It was my first job out of college. I was working in the Athletics Marketing Department at what is now Texas State –San Marcos, then known as Southwest Texas State. In an odd twist, they helped me see my first ever game at Rupp. The Bobcats played Kentucky at Rupp in a classic December mismatch that year. I’ll never forget the column lead in the Herald-Leader that day (wish I could remember the writer) – “nickname Bobcats. Codename cupcakes.” After 20-plus years as a UK fan, I finally got to see a game on a visiting media credential. While “my” team took a drubbing from my team that night (we had to guard Jamal Mashburn with a freshman high jumper named Marcus Cooper we plucked from the track team. Carlos Toomer scored 12 in the 82-36 win, which could have been much, much worse.), it did lead to one of my all-time career highlights – I both met Cawood Ledford for the first time, and at halftime I looked down press row and realized that both me and Cawood were talking on the radio from Rupp at the same time. The big difference was people were listening to Cawood.

My Date, March 28, 1992.

Outkicking my coverage since 1991!

Shortly after that game, I flew back home for Christmas and against all odds (those of you who know me well and especially those who knew me then can attest the longshottedness) had a couple of dates with a girl I had known from college. We stayed in touch after I went back to Texas. She visited on spring break (and trust me, while nice, San Marcos is no spring break destination point) and I came back to see her for a week in March. Which is how I came to be at the Northern Kentucky University Delta Zeta sorority chapter’s Spring Formal while the greatest college basketball game ever played was happening. Were there TVs at the formal location? Sure. Had I just flown home the day before? Yes. Did I think it was in my bets interests to sit glued to a TV at her event? No. No I did not. So it came to pass that I…saw…nothing.

Obviously, after all these years and with the advent of such awe-inspiring technology, I could go back and watch the game in its entirety, but I have never been a fan of watching sports after the fact. A great deal of the joy of sports is the unknown. How do things turn out? Can we pull this off? What happens next? Knowing any of those things turns the unique excitement of watching sports into watching an ok-ish cable drama. It’s just not the same. I have to do it sometimes these days, but only because I have to sometimes in order to sound reasonably coherent on First State Financial Sunday Morning Sports Talk (9 am-Noon on NewsRadio 630 WLAP).

So it is that I have no personal recollection of a game that is so fondly remembered by some and still causes others so much pain. Maybe it’s better that I don’t remember. I’ve never been one to handle defeats well (I still hate the Oakland A’s because of the 1972 World Series).

Oh, and that pretty girl? She eventually agreed to marry me. I’ll take the tradeoff.

Bracket Busting

My annual Blog Bracket experiment has gone fairly predictably. The Kenpom Bracket – last year’s champion – not only has a comfortable lead, but it also has two of four Final Four teams (Louisville &  Florida) remaining, as well as Florida winning it all, which makes me want to throw up.

The loss of three No. 1 seeds and the failure to get more than one Elite Eight game matchup right has all but doomed the Higher Seed Bracket at this point, although it still sits in second place and has champion Louisville left.

The RPI Bracket is almost tapped out, but has the nausea-inducing Duke National Championship possibility still alive.

The Coin Toss Bracket even has a championship possibility left in Duke.

The Homer Bracket, Mascot Bracket (moral of the story – never trust natural disasters), even the Wall Street Journal Blindfold Bracket, and of course My Picks have all met their predictable ends.

At least my Homer Bracket was one of 0.95% in the ESPN Bracket Challenge that picked Florida Gulf Coast to the Sweet 16. Long live Dunk City.

Need a Backup Team? I’m Here to Help

Kentucky Wildcats

With Kentucky not in this year’s NCAA Tournament field, Wildcats fans are left looking for options.

I generally detest all forms of sports bigamy. I grew up before ESPN and before cable, so you didn’t get to (have to) watch every Yankees game on ESPN, so you liked the team that was closest to you. Well, you didn’t like that team; you LOVED that team and despised all others. That works better for pro sports than college sports it seems. With colleges, you can end up liking a number of teams from your area. You can like teams from different conferences that will almost never play each other. You can like teams that are on different levels. So it is that I have become a Kentucky Wildcats fan AND a Xavier Musketeers fan.

Unfortunately, when the NCAA Tournament opens later today, NEITHER of those teams will be in it. So, I have had to pick a back-up team.

Maybe you are a Kentucky fan or your team is just always bad. Sure you fill out your brackets and obsess over every game, but sometimes it’s nice to have ONE team that you latch onto and live and die with.

In case you’d like to do that and just don’t know where to start, never fear, I have given the remaining 64 teams a thorough going-over and I present you here with all of your options.

If you’re a Kentucky fan and aren’t interested in trying to learn a new nickname on short notice, there are four teams in the field to help you out. Arizona, Villanova, Kansas State and Davidson all have Wildcats as their mascots. Davidson is also a low seed that could win a game or two, so you could have the added bonus of rooting for a Wildcats team AND being an underdog hipster if they win.

Do you already have a bunch of blue clothing and don’t want to go out and buy something new to wear for three weeks (or less) while you follow your new adopted team? That’s easy too. There are 26 teams that have some form of blue in their team colors. The South Dakota State Jackrabbits actually use the exact same shade of blue as Kentucky (PMS 286 for you graphics people), so all of your current blue clothes will look ok. The next closest blues (PMS 287) belong to Duke, Florida and St. Louis. And since rooting for Duke and Florida are unacceptable to UK fans, you can back the Billikens and still look like you meant to.

Do you think you don’t have time to learn a new cheer? Well, Wildcats fans, you’re still in luck. Michigan uses the Go Big Blue cheer, so you can jump on their bandwagon, although you will need to go buy different colored clothes.

Maybe the best blue to back is that of Florida Gulf Coast. Their colors are Cobalt Blue and Emerald Green, which signify the colors of the earth and the sea. And given how cold it still is here, who isn’t thinking about sitting near the ocean right now?

Florida Gulf Coast

THIS is on the Florida Gulf Coast campus. I had trouble remembering what buildings my classes were in. Here, I would have never known there were buildings

FGCU also works if you’re a hippie trying to enjoy the Tournament while not giving into “the man,” or animal oppression, or factory farming or whatever. The colors were picked to be in line with the school’s environmental mission.

If you don’t have a team and just like colors that’s all two teams have for nicknames. You could back the Syracuse Orange (which also uses blue as an unofficial color for trim) or the Harvard Crimson.

Are you one of the seemingly millions of animal lovers who posts every picture of an animal you see on Facebook? Well, there’s plenty here to love in addition to the Wildcats. For example, my mom has always loved tigers. She has two options – Missouri and Memphis — in the field.

There are four bears in the Tournament if you count Bears (Cal), Grizzlies (Montana) and Bruins (UCLA and Belmont). There are also four Bulldogs, if you count Georgetown and North Carolina A&T who use bulldogs as mascots to go with different nicknames (Hoyas and Aggies, respectively), along with Gonzaga and Butler. Dog lovers who don’t love bulldogs can also go with the Albany Great Danes.

A lot of people love wolves and with all the sweet wolf T-shirts out there, who wouldn’t. Those folks also have two options in New Mexico (Lobos) and the North Carolina State Wolfpack.

There are also two Eagles with Marquette and Florida Gulf Coast.

If you still haven’t found an animal you can support, your other options are – Badgers, Bearcats, Bison, Bluejays, Buffaloes, Cardinals, Ducks, Gators, Gophers, Jackrabbits, Jaguars, Jayhawks, Owls, Panthers and Wolverines.

Maybe you don’t like authority. There are two Rebels to back in the Tournament in Ole Miss (which has a REAL rebel on the roster) and Nevada-Las Vegas.

Like old westerns? There are Cowboys (Oklahoma State plus New Mexico State if you go by mascot characters) and Indians (Illinois) in the fields.

Love to fight? You have the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame and the Fighting Illini of Illinois.

Are you proud of your Scottish or Irish heritage and aren’t quite ready to let go of St. Patrick’s Day? Of course there is the Fighting Irish, but you could also back the Gaels of St. Mary’s and Iona.

Jim Cantore

We all know who this guy is backing in March.

Maybe you’re a meteorologist whose team didn’t quite make the Tournament this year. One hard and fast rule about meteorologists is that they LOVE to talk about the weather. All the time. So they have the Miami Hurricanes and the Iowa State Cyclones to make them feel at home and maybe never even break out of their weather reports.

Other professions in the Tournament include farmers in the New Mexico State and North Carolina A&T Aggies, the LaSalle Explorers and even royalty with the James Madison Dukes.

Need something a little more fierce than a low-level royal sycophant to get you through the next three weeks? There are three types of warrior people in the Tournament – the San Diego State Aztecs, the Valparaiso Crusaders and the Michigan State Spartans.

Still nothing? Well, you’re being a little hard to please, but you can go with mythical creatures (the St. Louis Billikens or Kansas Jayhawks) and even devils (Duke Blue Devils and Northwestern State Demons).

Finally, you can just pick a mascot that almost nobody understands. The Ohio State Buckeyes, Harvard Crimson, Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, Georgetown Hoyas, Indiana Hoosiers, Wichita State Shockers, North Carolina Tar Heels or Akron Zips would all fit the bill.

Look, I know that’s a lot to take in. And I know the tournament is just hours away. Maybe with no real team of your own in the tournament, you’re just too depressed to follow along. I completely understand. In that case feel free to do what I intend to do while the Tournament goes on around me:
Keep Calm Drink Bourbon

Brackets Made Simple 2

Kentucky Clebration

Unfortunately, this won’t be happening again this year.

A year ago in this blog’s infancy, as a public service I chose to lay out a number of ways for people to choose their NCAA Tournament brackets without listening to a bunch of talking heads break down brackets and without doing a lot of work on their own. That process turned out to be a lot of work for me, but because I’m just that kind of guy, I have undertaken to do it all again.

And just like last year, I have paired four reasonably scientific ways of selecting a champion with three sheets of pure nonsense. As anybody who has ever produced an NCAA Tournament bracket for a competition of any kind knows, the nonsense brackets are damn near as likely to win as the scientific ones, just ask the new person in your office from some unknown country who has never seen a game before but filled one out just to fit in who won your office pool last year.

With that in mind, here we go for Brackets Made Simple 2! First the “scientific.”

Use Wall Street Journal Blindfold Brackets

2013 Blindfold BracketI don’t know how long they’ve been doing it, but I discovered the Wall Street Journal Blindfold Brackets a year ago. The way it works is simple. WSJ assigns a value to each team in six categories. It gives those ratings to you in infographic form with a short descriptive sentence of the team and a range that it could be seeded in and then lets your eyes pick who the stronger team is from there. The results end up being fascinating. This year, that led me to seven first-round wins by double digit seeds with Davidson (14) pulling the biggest upset. I ended up with South Dakota State and Bucknell in the Sweet 16. But the Elite 8 ended up being all 1-4 seeds. It DID put St. Louis in the Final Four (more on this later).

Wombat

Wombats is a WAY cooler name than Screwdrivers

The Blindfold Brackets were disappointing in one way this year though – team names. Last year the team names were all animals; some of them awesome. This year, they were household items. Let me tell you, a Wombats vs. Vampire Bats game is more fun to think about than a Screwdrivers vs. Coffee Tables.

Positives: Fun and fair.

Negatives: At least for this year, no Wombats

Use the RPI

2013 RPI BracketThe RPI is a math formula that the Selection Committee uses to select at-large teams and seed teams once they are in the Tournament. It measures a team’s performance and assigns that a number so teams can be evaluated on an allegedly equal footing.

Even with an allegedly hard and fast number to go by, the seeds to the RPI come out dodgy in a couple of places. Belmont is No. 19 in the RPI and was stuck with an 11 seed. Ohio State is 11 in the RPI headed into the Tournament and is a 2 seed. Also, two of the top four seeds aren’t in the top 4 in the RPI in Kansas (5) and Gonzaga (6). In two games – Pittsburgh-Wichita St. and Illinois-Colorado — a team with a worse RPI is seeded better than their opponent.

Negatives: Upsets are hard to come by. Even in Belmont’s case they lose their first-round matchup (I’m not counting the Tuesday/Wednesday games). The only 6 seed they would have beaten is UCLA. Oh and Duke wins. The RPI bracket finished FIFTH of seven options last year. Only mascots and coin toss did worse.

Positives: Duke wins. There can be no positives.

Use the Kenpom Rankings

2013 Kenpom BracketKenpom is another math thing. I don’t pretend to understand what it measures. It has something to do with overall strength and I’m told it’s a more predictive metric than the RPI, which tells you what has already happened. You could tell me it measured the relative freezing points of college basketball teams and I’d have no choice but to look at the numbers, shrug and take your word for it. There’s a reason I took my last math class in high school. Regardless, a lot of college basketball people and a ton of writers I respect swear by it.

Florida Gator

I would honestly rather Louisville win than the Florida Gators

According to Kenpom, the East Region is the easiest (average ranking is 60.125) and the West is the hardest (41.6875 average). However of the Final Four teams it picks – Louisville, Gonzaga, Florida and Indiana – Indiana out of the Midwest has the easiest route for games played at 66.5 average ranking per team. Florida’s route is the hardest at 44 average ranking.

In Kenpom, No. 7 Pittsburgh it one of the most underseeded teams with an 8 seed. No. 52 Butler is among the most overrated with its 6 seed. Minnesota is an 11 seed with a Kenpom ranking of 23, which is 21 points better than the UCLA team it plays in the first round.

Positives: Because it isn’t used in the selection process, Kenpom can allow for upsets. St. Mary’s would beat Memphis, and of course Minnesota beats UCLA. Although Butler wins their first round game over Bucknell. Interestingly that is the only 6-11 matchup they would win. Kenpom won this experiment last year.

Negatives: Florida wins it all.

Pick the Highest Seed

2013 Higher Seeeds BracketThis isn’t rocket science. Just pick the team on the top line.

Negatives: No challenge. No upsets.

Positives: You get a LOT of games right.

And that’s it for “science,” which leaves us with ridiculousness.

There are several different ways to pick your ridiculous bracket if you don’t know college basketball, want to fit in and that’s what you want to go with. A favorite is by color. I’ll leave you to figure out what each team’s colors are and which ones you like best. I have concentrated on three options.

The Coin Toss Bracket

2013 Coin Toss BracketYou want lazy? I got lazy. In fact, this year I was SO lazy, I didn’t even flip an actual coin. I downloaded a coin toss app for my phone and flipped that. Less noise. Less coin chasing.

The coin toss app was noticeably heads-centric this year, going on 8- and 5-straight toss runs and ended up coming up heads 42 of 65 times (counting two play-ins that I had to figure out).

Coin Toss

Unfortunately the coin…well, the coin toss app…came up heads and declared Duke the winner.

Positives: Think this is ridiculous? The coin picked BOTH 15 over 2 upsets last year.

Negatives: It is ridiculous. It picked all four 15 seeds to win last year. Also picked one 16 seed. And it picked another one this year. Oh, and Duke wins – at least in mine.

Pick Based on Mascots

Again, I was a mascot in college, so I have a soft spot for the oddly dressed, not-quite-cheerleaders whose antics either bring joy or abject terror to kids everywhere, so why not give them a say in things? The principles are somewhat Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lizard, Spock-like, but generally humans defeat small animals, but lose to big ones. Big fierce animals beat big less fierce animals. Poisonous things win a lot. And natural disasters are pretty tough to beat. If no principle applies, pick the higher seed.

The principles occasionally come into conflict. Twice in this tournament animals of the same kind play each other (Memphis vs. Missouri and Cal vs. Montana). In both cases you go to the higher seed. In one case Crusaders (pretty fierce) take on Spartans (very fierce). Spartans move on.

Then there’s this: The New Mexico Lobos (wolves) take on the Belmont Bruins and the North Carolina State Wolfpack takes on the Cal Bears. Who wins? Well, it’s a split. I determined that ONE bear could beat ONE wolf, but that a pack of wolves would probably do the bear in.

It gets even more confusing when Miami (Hurricanes) meets Iowa State (Cyclones) in the championship game. In the Pacific Ocean, Hurricanes ARE Cyclones. However in this case, I think Cyclones refer to Dorothy-Wizard of Oz Cyclones, which I grew up with as tornados. And while tornados are horrific forces of nature, Hurricanes have wind, rain and storm surge and are about 1,000 times bigger. Hurricanes in a rout.

Positives: Kind of fun to think about different mascots fighting each other.

Negatives: None. Mascots are awesome.

Pick Like a Crazed Homer

2013 Homer BracketNormally this would mean picking my favorite teams to meet in the Championship Game with my most favorite team winning. HOWEVER, in this case neither of those teams (Kentucky followed by Xavier) is in the Tournament. Hell, neither of them are even still in the NIT, so we have to drop back to last year’s backup principles none of which make sense, but here goes:

Favored Teams:

  1. I am from Kentucky so I like Kentucky teams – Except I don’t like Rick Pitino and I can’t stand Ray Harper (old Great Lakes Valley Conference grudge from my days at Northern Kentucky and his days at Kentucky Wesleyan).
  2. I am from the Cincinnati area, so I like teams from that area – Except I don’t like Cincinnati. The favored group includes Ohio State.
  3. I am Catholic, so Catholic schools get an advantage.
  4. Teams that have somebody on staff I have worked with in the past trump all, so that means Indiana, St. Louis and Boise State go far. Indiana’s SID was my boss and mentor when I was a student worker at NKU. St. Louis assistant Jim Whitesell was the head coach at Lewis University when I worked there.

Unfavored Teams:

  1. Teams with somebody on staff I can’t stand (Louisville, Western Ky. and Akron – same reason as with Western. In fact, current Akron coach Keith Dambrot almost got me killed one year when NKU played at Ashland where he coached at the time).
  2. Teams that have fired somebody I worked with that I liked. Specifically, Kansas State fired Jim Wooldridge who was the head coach at Texas State-San Marcos when I was an intern there.
  3. Rivals of my favorite teams or teams that have knocked them out of the Tournament in the past.
Bud Selig is unlikely to declare the National Championship Game a tie, but I can always dream.

Bud Selig is unlikely to declare the National Championship Game a tie, but I can always dream.

This year’s bracket was devoid of the heavy conflicts last year’s had except in the South and with one GLARING exception. The first round of the South bracket is a mess here. There’s the Western Kentucky game, where I pick against a Kentucky team (Harper). Then Akron (Dambrot) gets eliminated. Northewestern State goes through on the basis of me hating Florida. And finally, while I should generally be inclined to take Georgetown as a Catholic school (or at least higher seed), I have decided to go all SEC football fan on them and take Florida Gulf Coast as the Atlantic Sun representative, and just be an A-SUN conference fan since that’s where my beloved NKU Norse play now.

In this format the Championship Game is a truly excruciating experience for me. It will match Indiana SID JD Campbell against St. Louis Assistant Coach Jim Whitesell. Both were an important part in my development as both a professional and a person. It would be awful to see either come that close and come up short, so since I can’t root for a 10-overtime thriller that is eventually declared a tie when Bud Selig jumps in and declares both teams out of pitchers, I’ll give the nod to Indiana.

By the way, in just a few years when NKU completes its Division I transitional period they are going to flat DOMINATE this bracket, whether they are in the field or not.

Positives: You are always rooting FOR something – even if it is rooting vehemently AGAINST something. This bracket came in fourth last year.

Negatives: In this Tournament, I’d have to watch two people I like and respect square off. A lot harder than watching two Catholic schools.

Finally, in the interest of fairness, here is a rough approximation of what I think might happen in the next four weeks.

Enjoy the Tournament!

Want to see how your picks stack up against these methods? Feel free to enter them in my ESPN Bracket Challenge group. The password is “gonorse”.

Pregame Reading: The Real Season Starts Tonight for UK

Ryan Harrow

When Ryan Harrow plays well, this Kentucky team is pretty good.

The Cats get underway in the SEC Tournament shortly following what has by most accounts been a disappointing season (although 12-6 and second place in the league hardly seems like a crisis). I’d LOVE to be able to tell you what you should expect tonight, but if you watched the team play this year or if you’ve listened to First State Financial Sunday Morning Sports Talk (9 am-Noon on NewsRadio 630 WLAP), you know that’s not happening.

Two reasons for that:

  1. 1) I am notoriously awful at predicting what’s going to happen in sporting events. It’s the reason I never gamble on games. In fact, if YOU want to gamble on games you’d be well served to find out what I think will happen and bet on whatever the exact opposite is.
  2. Twice in the last six games, I have given the Cats absolutely no chance to win – against Missouri and against Florida. If you follow Kentucky at all you are already aware they won both of those games.
  3. 2) This is the most impossible to figure UK team of my lifetime. As a result it’s also the most frustrating.

Kentucky has lost 10 games in the regular season – as they have this season — before. The difference is that when that happened you watched the team and knew they were limited. Each of the last years of the Tubby era and the two years under the Coach Who Shall Not Be Named you watched them play and you saw the problems. Who would score? Who was really a big time player (other than, it turns out, Rajon Rondo)?

This year, you don’t see that. You see guys that when they want to play can REALLY play. Which leaves the question the same tonight as it’s been throughout the year. Do they want to play tonight? Will the Good Ryan Harrow show up? Will Alex Poythress play with a little bit of fire? Will Archie Goodwin limit his mistakes?

If two of those things don’t happen, the Cats could still very well win. Kentucky has won games this year with Archie making mistakes. Kentucky has won this year with Alex playing like he didn’t want to be there. What they haven’t done – at least in a game of any substance – is win when Ryan Harrow didn’t show up. When Harrow is good this Kentucky team is good. On the Big Blue Insider Roundtable I was on Wednesday night, Aaron Smith of Cats Illustrated had the numbers for Ryan when UK wins and UK loses. Of course I can’t remember them, but the difference was staggering. The one I do recall is that in UK losses, Ryan’s assists-to-turnover ratio is something like 2.3-to-1. In losses, it’s less than 1-to-1. When Harrow plays well, the entire UK offense flows well. When Harrow doesn’t play well, the Cats don’t have answers.

Vandy Shot Clock

Kentucky needed this disputed basket to escape Vandy the last time the teams met in Nashville.

Kentucky SHOULD be able to win tonight. This isn’t the Vandy team of the past few years that the Cats face tonight. This is a bad Vandy team. But it’s also a Vandy team that has played Kentucky close twice. Both times Kentucky built decent leads and let Vandy back in. The last time they faced each other in Nashville, Kentucky was lucky to escape (although admittedly Bridgestone Arena doesn’t pose the same problems as Memorial Gymnasium does). Vandy can still shoot the three, as they showed last night against Arkansas. But most of what we saw from Vanderbilt last night was bad, clumsy basketball.

And Kentucky likely still needs to win tonight. Their spot in the NCAA Tournament field is far from firm. Losing to Arkansas – who did Kentucky no favors by playing like a rec league team last night – may not have hurt Kentucky as badly as a loss to Vandy surely would.

So what will happen? In the best interests of the Big Blue Nation, I may have to go with … the Cats have no chance of winning.

Time For a Team That’s Lost Its Heart to Search Its Soul

Noel's Final Block at Florida

Noel (likely) finished his UK career the way he played every other minute of it.

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.

UK alternate Jersey

Unfortunately that’s not a Superman logo above the number. (For what it’s worth, I like these.)

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.

Block the Vote: One Man’s Selections for Sportsman of the Year

Michael Dukakis

This Presidential candidate — and his brow — have haunted me for 20 years.

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.

  1. Anthony Davis

    Anthony Davis and his slightly fuller brow may garner as many votes this year as Dukakis did in 1992.

    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.

  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5.  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.
  6. 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.
  7. Lee Kiefer

    To this day I have no idea what was going on — other than the obvious stabbing each other with swords — but watching Lexington fencer Lee Kiefer advance to the quarterfinals was one of the highlights of Olympic viewing last year.

    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.

  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

Pre Game Reading: Breathing Room

Maxwell Smith

Led by a blossoming Max Smith at quarterback, the Wildcats bought themselves — and their coach some much needed breathing room last week.

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.

Bud Dupree

Bud Dupree and the Kentucky defense stabilized in the second half against Kent.

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.

Looking Ahead

John L Smith

How many times will John L. Smith make this face this season?

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.

Programming Note

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.

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