Kentucky's Roller Coaster Season: Big Blue Heart

    
March 23rd, 2008
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To say the 2007-08 UK basketball season was a roller coaster is like saying that weather in Kentucky is a little unpredictable. In other words…a giant understatement.

First, there was a summer full of the joy and anticipation that comes with a fresh start, as UK welcomed new coach Billy Gillispie, fresh off a remarkable turnaround at Texas A&M. Gillispie’s energy seemed like a perfect fit for a UK program that seemed to have stagnated under Tubby Smith.

But the honeymoon was short-lived. A non-conference schedule saw the Cats endure home losses to Gardner-Webb and San Diego, as well as losses to UAB and Houston on their way to a 6-7 start. In the midst of that, highly-touted recruit Alex Legion chose to transfer to Illinois in December, depleting the Cats’ depth even more as sophomore guards Derrick Jasper and Jodie Meeks continued to battle injuries. Then in January, the light bulb came on, as UK pulled off two huge upset wins over Tennessee and Vanderbilt. Things looked to be coming together.

Then, perhaps looking ahead to Valentine’s Day plans with their ladies, the Cats barely bothered to show up in a match-up with Vandy on Feb. 12, losing 93-52 (and it wasn’t even that close). Adding to that was the surprise dismissal of walk-on Dusty Mills from the team, followed by a battle of words through the media about the reason behind the dismissal. Yet the Cats managed to regroup and win their next four, before suffering yet another setback when star freshman Patrick Patterson announced he had a stress fracture in his ankle and would miss the rest of the season.

Even the SEC Tournament in Atlanta, normally a safe haven as Big Blue fans take over the Georgia Dome, was bizarre. A tornado ripped through the city on Friday, postponing UK’s first game and causing it to be moved to another arena, where the small number of seats limited the crowd to players’ families cheerleaders, bands and media. After a first-round loss to Georgia, the Cats found themselves on the dreaded NCAA bubble, eventually drawing a first-round match-up with nemesis Marquette.

Yet with everything that happened this season, one image stands out to me. As the seconds ticked off the clock in UK’s 74-66 loss to Marquette, the camera panned to a close-up of UK senior Joe Crawford, who had just fouled out of the game. Crawford, normally stoic and unemotional throughout his career, had tears streaming down his cheeks, barely able to watch the final few seconds. Despite gutsy, gritty and phenomenal performance by Crawford (35 points) and fellow senior Ramel Bradley (19), the Cats would be going home. An 18-13 season, marked by extreme ups and downs, was finally over.

But the image of Crawford crying showed what this UK team was all about. There were countless times this team could have packed it in. Injuries depleted the Cats’ depth all season, as Jasper, Meeks and Patterson combined to miss 37 games. Bad losses popped up through the season like weeds, attempting to halt any momentum the Cats might be gaining. Whispers grew louder about Gillispie’s coaching style, as UK seemed incapable of playing anything less than a nail-biter, no matter who the opponent. Even a March tornado in Atlanta (how often does that happen??) took away the home court advantage the Cats normally enjoy for the SEC Tournament.

But never once did these Cats look to give up. Led by Bradley and Crawford, they continued to fight and claw and scratch, despite being undermanned on many nights. Criticized throughout their UK careers for their consistency, the two seniors showed enough heart to endear them to even the most cynical of UK fans. Who can forget Bradley’s clutch shots this year against Vandy and Florida, willing the team to victory despite fatigue from playing nearly every minute of the SEC season (570 out of 655 possible minutes, including missing one entire game with an injury). Or Crawford, who made a great Marquette defense look average as he dropped in shot after shot, leaving everything he had on the court?

What about Perry Stevenson, who weighs about 175 pounds soaking wet, battling SEC big men in Patterson’s absence, never shying away from a challenge? Or Derrick Jasper, toughing out an assortment of injuries to take the court nearly every night? Even Mark Coury and Ramon Harris, two players who don’t exactly fill up the box scores, competed hard night in and night out, despite usually playing against more talented opponents.

Granted, an 18-13 season and a first-round exit isn’t what UK fans expect. The rafters at Rupp Arena aren’t filled with banners from teams who got bounced in the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. But the emotion, passion and heart demonstrated by this UK team should be recognized. Battling through obstacles, injuries, fatigue and criticism, they never made excuses and never pointed fingers. They showed their true character by staying on course and continuing to improve, even when the odds were stacked against them.

Crawford’s tears may have marked the end of this crazy ride, but he should take solace in knowing that this team won’t soon be forgotten. The 2008 national champion won’t be UK, but these kids showed the heart of a champion time and time again. So my hat’s off to these Cats, for playing with the passion and pride that makes UK basketball so special.