Kentucky’s stunning 41-38 win over Louisville put the Cats in a whole different bowl conversation than it looked like they would be in this week. The win boosted UK’s record to 7-5 — and 7-3 in the last 10 games — and came over a highly ranked team. Georgia, Tennessee and Arkansas all lost games they were expected to win.
One bowl official I know well said the Tennessee loss to Vanderbilt changed a lot of things that could impact Kentucky.
“All the projected bowl lineups going into the weekend are out the window now,” he told me Sunday.
Does that mean UK could be in play for the Music City Bowl Dec. 30 in Nashville now?
“There is a much better chance now that UK could be in Nashville. Before Saturday, there was no chance,” the bowl official told me.
Kentucky should be in a group vying for spots in one of six bowls with SEC affiliations. After the Sugar Bowl, Orange Bowl and Citrus Bowl are filled, the SEC assigns the next six teams to the Texas Bowl, Liberty Bowl, Belk Bowl, Outback Bowl and Taxslayer Bowl along with the Music City Bowl.
Kentucky athletics director Mitch Barnhart says he wants the best bowl possible for the players and “wants it to be something our fans can get to and go enjoy this team.”
That’s why the Music City Bowl makes sense for Kentucky — and the merchants of Nashville who would welcome the Big Blue dollars .
Kentucky is a Cinderella story, too, made for a bowl game. The Cats lost to Southern Mississippi. Then they lost their starting quarterback to injury. Rumors swirled that Stoops might be fired before the season even ended. Then the Cats beat Mississippi State on a last second field goal. They barely lost to Georgia. They beat Louisville in the final game as a 26-point underdog and had fans waiting to welcome them back home.
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said after the win he was excited to see his players so happy.
“That is what is so beautiful about this team. When you go through adversity and build something, it is special. They have loved, trusted and believed in each other and gone to work and got better. We are not perfect, but their attitude is perfect,” Stoops said.
That’s one reason the coach did not panic over the 0-2 start or injury to quarterback Drew Barker. He said a seven-win season — or more — was still realistic in his mind after the 0-2 start.
“I knew we had a good football team and were going to get better,” Stoops said. “We had an opportunity to win eight or nine.”
Beating Louisville was the signature win Stoops had lacked in his four years at UK.
“It’s a significant win. Our players deserved it, our fan base did, our administration. We poured a lot into this. It’s not easy. So, it’s a giant step in the right direction,” Stoops said.
Stoops and his staff hit the road recruiting Sunday to take advantage of the hype from the Louisville win.
“We’re hitting the pavement hard. We got to keep getting some good players,” Stoops said.
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It was not easy for Philadelphia point guard Quade Green to say no to Syracuse and yes to Kentucky like he did.
“He had a really strong relationship with Syracuse because they had recruited him longer,” said Carl Arrigale, Green’s coach at Neumann Goretti High School. “He had a tougher time turning Syracuse more than accepting Kentucky. He felt bad. I’m proud of him for feeling that way because it proves he has a soul.”
So what did Calipari did to persuade him to pick UK even though the Cats did not start recruiting him until much later than Syracuse?
“Calipari made him feel comfortable and gave him the belief about what he could do. When they started after him hard, he knew these guys really wanted him to run the show next year. That’s when it got tricky for him,” Arrigale said. “I just thought he really told the truth to Quade and his mom. He did not sugarcoat anything about how Quade would fit into the equation at Kentucky. In the end he just thought it was a better place for him to continue his career and academics.”
Calipari’s success putting so many guards into the NBA played a factor, too.
“The NBA was a big factor. Any kid with his skill level or ability to play, and wants play at the next level, where else would you want to go but where they put the most guys in the league?” Arrigale said. “He wants to be a NBA player and knows if he goes there they will prepare him for that.”
Arrigale knew former UK assistant coach Orlando Antigua well and Antigua had introduced him to Calipari a few times to where he knew the UK coach a little bit.
“I admired what they did from afar. I like to play fast and be aggressive,” Arrigale said. “We have had a small team the last two years with four guards and one big. We run the dribble drive (offense). I am looking forward to our relationship growing just like Quade is.”
Jim Lambert didn’t need long to recognize how special Sydney McLaughlin was going to be.
“She is a once-in-a-generation type athlete. Once she stepped on the track and I saw her, I knew she had ability I had not seen. I knew she was destined for greatness,” said Lambert, a reporter for NJ Advance Media (follow him on Twitter at @lambo2126.)
He was right, too. At age 13, she broke the New Jersey state record in the 400-meter hurdles. At age 16, she made the U.S. Olympic team — she was third in the U.S. Olympic trials in a world junior record time of 54.15 seconds — and was the youngest United States Olympian in 44 years. She qualified for the semifinals in Rio, too.
Now the senior from Union Catholic High School in Scotch Plains, N.J., is headed to the University of Kentucky to join coach Edrick Floreal’s team.
“She captivated the hearts of the country by making the Olympics at age 16,” Lambert said. “A lot were shocked when she picked Kentucky but anyone who knows her sees why UK is the perfect fit for Sydney. She went to USC (Southern California) and Kentucky and then cancelled the rest of her visits.”
Lambert says the success Floreal has had coaching hurdlers, including world record holder Kendra Harris and Puerto Rico Olympian Jasmine Camacho-Quinn, made UK right for McLaughlin.
Lambert says McLaughlin’s success is in her family bloodline. Her father was a U.S. semifinalist in the 400 Olympic Trials. Her sister was a state track champion. Her brother was a Big Ten champion at Michigan last year.
“She has great genes along with a great work ethic. She is willing to do everything it takes to be special along with having a lot of God-given ability,” Lambert said. “You need to get to the track and see this girl. She made the Olympics when she was 16, which is mindboggling. But she’s only scratching the surface of what she will be.”
Another New Jersey teen, Laurie Hernandez, won a gold medal at the 2016 Olympics with the women’s gymnastics team and also took silver on the balance beam.
“Gymnasts are in their prime at that age in high school. For Sydney to do what she did at that age blows my mind. Most hurdlers reach their peak in their mid-20’s,” Lambert said. “She was competing against women who have been doing this for 10 years. For her to get to Rio is one of the greatest accomplishments in track and field history. To do something that has not been in 44 years says it all. We may never see this again.”
Lambert says McLaughlin doesn’t act special on the track or away from the competition. He noted how she said after the U.S. Olympic Trails that the first thing she wanted was a “cheeseburger” after qualifying for the Olympics.
“She is just a regular kid. Humble, happy-golucky, silly kid,” Lambert said. “As great as she is on the track, off the track she is just as amazing. She volunteers at a soup kitchen. She helped after the hurricane hit here.
“She is a rock star everywhere she goes in New Jersey. She handles it well and always has a smile on her face. She embraces it.”
Lambert said McLaughlin was a skilled soccer and basketball player in middle school before deciding to concentrate on track where some have compared her to nine- time Olympic medalist Alyson Felix, who is McLaughlin’s role model.
“That’s how great Sydney could be. The baton could be passed from Felix to her in the future,” Lambert said. “As long as she stays healthy and keeps this passion, it could happen.”
Lambert said UK fans had a good idea they might be seeing greatness when New Jersey’s Karl- Anthony Towns came to Kentucky — and he’s certainly continuing to show greatness in the NBA.
“That’s the kind of impact she will have. You are going to see greatness and UK fans are going to be treated to something special,” Lambert said. “You have to go see her. I can’t sleep the night before I am going to see her run. She is unbelievable.”
The annual Marshall County Hoop Fest is Thursday through Saturday in Benton and again will have some of the nation’s top players, including Arizona signee DeAndre Ayton and Kentucky signee Shai Alexander.
But if you want to see some potential rising stars, look for Aspire Basketball Academy out of Arizona — a new prep school coached by former Louisville assistant coach Jeremy Kipness.
“This is our first year but it is incredible the type of talent we have brought in for this initial year,” said Kipness. “We have a strong international presence on our team with kids from Senegal, Cameroon and Germany. We had kids from New York and Chicago.
“We are huge with guys 6-9, 6-10, 6-11 with big wing spans. We have some really good guards and some really good young players. We have a 6-8 sophomore (Dane Quest) that (Louisville) coach (Rick) Pitino has fallen in love with. We have a sophomore guard (Joel Brown) who played on the Canadian youth national team and already has an offer from Rutgers.
“We had 35 college coaches in during a month to see us. Makhtar Gueye, a 6-10 wing, has over 20 Division I offers and Pitino fell in love with him, too.”
He says Kentucky has not expressed interest in any of his players yet, but Kipness says he has at least two younger players that are “UK material.”
Kipness has a “close relationship” with Marshall County Hoop Fest organizer Dan Hudson and knows it is one of the “premier” events in the country.
“We can’t wait to be there. We know there will be great players, great teams. Always has been at Marshall County. We’re thrilled to be part of this event,” Kipness said.
Freshman Bam Adebayo said he felt “blessed” that he was able to spend time on Thanksgiving helping at the Salvation Army.
“It’s really interesting when you see stuff like that because it opens your eyes and makes you realize how blessed you are,” Adebayo said. “Just seeing other people that didn’t have as much as you, so you are like giving back to them. Plus, we are Kentucky basketball players so it makes them feel good and makes us happy also.
“They liked talking to us and I enjoyed talking to them. I smiled and liked seeing their smiles. We just kind of passed plates of food around. I didn’t get to load up because I was just passing the plates out. If I had been serving, everybody would have got even more. But it was a great experience for me.”