By Joe Cox
As I type these words, Kentucky is preparing to tip off its season with the basketball powerhouse that is Grand Canyon. By the time you read these words, that game will probably have been played, and maybe one or two more will as well. But that’s fine, because the words I have to say will probably need to be said many times this season.
Slow down. Enjoy the ride.
By anyone’s measurement and assessment, this is — or at least has the potential to be — a very special Kentucky basketball team. But before they’ve taken the court in an actual game, against any sort of legitimate competition, the expectations are in place. Title No. 9. Maybe an undefeated season.
We’ll start with the first of those. An NCAA title is never something to be taken lightly. A year ago, I sat down with Denny Crum, who won two of those beauties, and asked him about the process. Basically, it’s a crap shoot, Crum told me. He remembered squeaking by his 1980 title team’s first two NCAA games in overtime. One more shot goes in for the other team, he said, and it doesn’t happen. But it did happen.
The following year, he returned a team that entered the NCAAs red-hot. They began the year 1-6. They finished it 21-8. Earned a No. 4 seed in the tournament — and lost their first game on a halfcourt shot by Arkansas.
I don’t remember his exact words, but Crum essentially told me there wasn’t that much difference between the two teams. Sometimes, you get the lucky break. And you win. Sometimes the other guy does. And you lose. All a coach can really do is get the team in position.
Calipari will get Kentucky in position. But remember some of the teams that DIDN’T win a championship: Indiana State with Larry Bird, Olajuwon and Drexler’s Houston Phi Slamma Jamma squads, Carolina in Jordan’s last two seasons, UNLV’s 1991 juggernaut, the Fab Five, etc.
As for the unbeaten talk, there’s a reason that hasn’t happened in almost 40 years. Look at the (even greater) teams that couldn’t go undefeated: Magic’s Michigan State team that beat Bird, Georgetown with Ewing, any of Michael Jordan’s UNC teams, the Duke teams with Laettner and Hurley, UK in 1996, and so forth.
If Kentucky can get to SEC play undefeated, at that point, it’s a story worth thinking about. For the NCAA title talk, of course UK stands as a heavy favorite. But for now, in November, let’s just enjoy the events as they come.
When you see athletic seven-footers run the floor and dunk on people’s heads, just enjoy it. When Aaron Harrison or Devon Booker takes a crisp pass and effortlessly drains another trey, appreciate the moment. We may well never see a team this good again.
But joy in the journey, and don’t burden the team or the coach or even the rest of the fan base with expectations. Every step in Calipari’s journey at UK has been unique, without any real precedent. This is perhaps the oddest, the most amazing, and potentially the most rewarding step yet. But take it one day at a time for what it is, not for what it could be.
These young men are players, not robots. They have parents and girlfriends and problems and exams and lives. For them, as much as winning games and boosting their NBA stock, this moment is about enjoying a time in their lives when they are still putting it all together — in a basketball sense and in a sense of identity.
It’s not a death quest toward basketball immortality. It’s a journey taken by 15 young men over the next five months. It’s about development — of the player, of the person, and ultimately, of the team. So sit back and watch young people grow and mature. There will be hiccups. There may be a loss or two or three. They might even not win a title. But it is going to be a heck of a show and a time that will never be repeated. Leave the baggage at the door. Just enjoy it, whatever it becomes.
Joe Cox is contributing editor for Kysportsstyle360.com. He grew up in Letcher County and Bell County, and has written three books involving UK sports -- 100 Things Wildcats Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die, Fightin’ Words: Kentucky vs. Louisville (both with Ryan Clark), and Voice of the Wildcats: Claude Sullivan and the Rise of Modern Sportscasting (with Alan Sullivan). Joe is an attorney and lives in Logan County with his wife and children. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.