I’m trying to figure out exactly what to think of the Kentucky Wildcats. The team that nearly everybody had penciled-in to win a National Championship, the team comprised of ALL superstars. Kentucky is the antithesis of what I usually root for or respect in sports. Their coach comes off as cocky and insufferable, they have the best of everything and ignore whatever “integrity of the game” there is left in the NCAA with the focus on “One & Done” talent. Kentucky is the anti-Utah. Yet I found myself through the close of the regular season and tournament play starting to appreciate the Wildcats for what they are. A dominant collection of superstar talent that still found a way to play TEAM basketball. Whatever silver-spoon mentality they might have come out of high school with, or carried around in Lexington, Calipari’s players left it on the bench or in the locker room for game day. This is a team that hustles, plays great defense (and help defense) makes the extra pass, etc. Really, the brand of basketball Kentucky played was quite appealing. Half of me found myself rooting for 40-0 and a perfect Championship season. Not for Coach Calipari, but for the players who seemed to be willing to check astronomical egos at the door in favor of the greater good. Once the Utes were out, and the Arizona Wildcats team that I had picked to win it all were out, I didn’t have a horse in the race, so I wouldn’t have minded seeing history made.
We all know by now how silly it is to try and judge an athletes’ character through what we see of them in competition, but I was surprised by the way Kentucky acted after the loss to Wisconsin. Not surprised THAT they lost; Wisconsin is a great team with NBA talent of their own on the roster. But seeing several players walk off the court without shaking hands (including de-facto leader Willie Caulie-Stein) , and the forever-infamous post-game comments from Andrew Harrison had me questioning which were the true colors of this team. Which is the true Kentucky team? Misunderstood hardworking superstars who didn’t deserve to be hated for their talent, or petulant sore-losers with no respect for their opponents?
I thought about it over the weekend, and decided that the answer is almost certainly… BOTH.
I’ve been guilty of poor-sportsmanship in a moment of extreme disappointment, I’ve also faked being a good sport when I truly DIDN’T respect my opponent. Maybe Caulie-Stein wishes he wouldn’t have walked off the court early, maybe he got so used to winning he forgot how to lose. Maybe he’s a cocky jerk who only acted otherwise all-season for the benefit of the programs and he realized in that moment, he was NBA-bound and he no longer needed to represent the team or University well. I won’t pretend to know his motivations. Harrison’s comments were insensitive and stupid in front of a hot microphone or anywhere else, but I won’t fake outrage or complain about the double-standard of racism or anything else. Because I believe that scenario was truly about a young, stupid kid being young and stupid and not realizing that the microphone in front of him was live. He might be a bad person, or a great person, or a racist or any of assorted things. But up to this point in the season all he had been was a winning basketball player and he didn’t have the coaching, maturity, good sense to be better at handling being a losing basketball player.
I’ve never been close to perfection or legendary status in sports, and this Kentucky team was certainly on the verge of both. Because of that I think we can give them a pass. Especially because they no longer matter. That’s punishment enough. They will always be the ALMOST perfect team. Big Blue Nation will remember them for being awesome, but not exceptional. And because of the nature of that program, most of them won’t be back to try again. All good reasons to remember that Kentucky’s season ends with coaches, fans, and most importantly players feeling (literally and figuratively) rather blue.