Mixing metaphors. If there is a Secretariat out there today — talent, poise, flowering personality and national attention, it’s housed in Lexington.
Kentucky’s basketball team is big, powerful, smart, showy, with a heart two lions large, and can run too, 10-at-a-time, on 20 legs, all day.
That ESPN analysts declared to the world in the last week or so that Kentucky has quality enough to win its own triple crown (SEC, SEC tourney and NCAA), is johnny come-lately. Folk in Big Blue Nation “saw it right off.”
If you’re still with me here, you’ve probably seen every SEC team play at least once this season. Says here, Gainesville, Tuscaloosa to Baton Rouge, pick one, I’ve seen nary a platoon to match Kentucky’s two. Add in the hostile home crowd factor at SEC stops ( see poise against UofL), and Kentucky still looks like Secretariat out of the gate. With due respect to Duke firepower, Virginia defense and Arizona team-ness, we could be witnessing the unfolding of narrative for another Belmont Stakes (1973).
The ingredients and personality elements for legend are all there.
TO THE UK ARCHIVES!
Having steamrolled its non- SEC schedule 12-0, let us open the UK basketball archive which, in this case has the heft of Smithsonian and is reverential history to Big Blue Nation. v 1966. Last time a Kentucky team had the magical mix of skill, size, savvy and likability to march to March. On the way to No. 1 in the rankings, Rupp’s Runts finished pre-SEC 9-0. By March 5 and a trip to Knoxville the Wildcats were 23-0. We know what happened then. v 1954. If the 2015 Wildcats flatten the SEC, they will reach a pinnacle not seen in Big Blue Nation in 61 years. The 1953-54 team won its first seven by double-digits through December and ranked first in all national polls. Adolph Rupp’s only unbeaten team was on its way to 25-0.
Then, in a decision that, if made today would cause riot and ruin and a lawsuit, SEC schools voted to let Kentucky participate in the NCAA Tournament, but without its three leading scorer-rebounders, Cliff Hagan, Frank Ramsey and Lou Tsioropoulos.
Disqualify the core of Rupp’s team because? They were graduate students who had exhausted their eligibility, the league ruled. Irrelevant, they said, the three had not played at all the year before since Kentucky had been suspended as punishment for the point shaving scandal in 1949.
Without his Terrible Trio, Rupp declared his No. 1 ranked and unbeaten team would not accept the NCAA bid. In the end 1954’s national champion was LaSalle. Kentucky had coasted by the Explorers 73-60 in December.
The decision to ban Hagan, Ramsey and Tsioropoulos was, many believed, linked to footballdominate SEC bosses who wanted to punish Rupp again for the 1949 scandal.
And so, another record is up for re-set for the 2015 Kentucky Wildcats, 25-0 and beyond.
v Tyler Ulis. Beyond his remarkably timely shooting in face of 22,000 hostiles, was the rookie’s poise and, with blood running down his face, tenacity to carry on. Good news: Kentucky fans can spend a few dollars on a No. 3 jersey for the kid. Better news: Ulis will likely be around awhile. v Not a good sign. Louisville forced a visiting foe into 10 turnovers in 20 minutes, still trailed at half. v Chris Jones open shot from the left … clang! Wayne Blackshear open from base line … clank! v Montrezl Harrell blocked a Willy Cauley-Stein shot early. His emotional outburst after one play cost energy and did nothing to help his team. v An All-American, Harrell cleared himself for just nine shots in 40 minutes. v Passionate Rick Pitino had his team wound tight enough to fight the Taliban, the Cardinals were so emotionally taut they couldn’t calm down and shoot straight, 15 of 58 (eight more tries than Kentucky), was a Junior Pro-like, 25 percent. v This was no game for Pitino. The normally effervescent coach’s jaws were so tight afterwards, he told media he would answer three questions, only. v One assist (Chris Jones)? The Cardinals attempted 58 shots, 35 by guards and had one pass-for-abasket. What sort of team preparation was this? v Blocked shots. A brag-rights element in Louisville’s swarm defense. Against Kentucky, the Cardinals logged two. v Defense can’t win every game, say some experts? Yes, it can. Poor shooting nights happen to teams, but defense, underpinned by extraordinary depth, can be sustained all night every night. v Offense option: Teams on UK’s schedule face same bad option: What to do when the Harrisons twins checked out and freshmen Devin Booker and Ulis check in? Booker and Ulis swished eight of 13 shots, including three triples, 23 points.
WORTH REPEATING DEPT.
• “It was very physical, but they let a lot go. It was one of those games you had to keep playing through the fouls. Don’t worry about it. Don’t complain. Just keep playing.”
• “It’s going to be one time in my life I’ll be able to play with a person like Willie Cauley-Stein. It’s a blessing and I just want to enjoy all the time I have with him. … Possibly one of the best defenders I’ll ever play with.”