Each October, things change in Kentucky. The leaves on the trees change from green to red, orange and gold. The air is a bit crisper, the temperatures a little cooler and the smell of autumn permeates everything. But the real change in Kentucky is the buzz created by the arrival of Big Blue Madness.
This season, Big Blue Madness was more eagerly anticipated than most for a couple of reasons. The previous season had ended in very disappointing fashion: the defending National Champions had failed to make the NCAA tournament, having to play in the NIT instead. A first round loss to Robert Morris had put half of the Big Blue Nation on suicide watch. But hope was alive because the new recruiting class was about to be introduced to the world at the first practice of the season, the “practice” in front of 23,000 screaming Wildcat fans.
As the lights dimmed and the music swelled, the introductions began. We welcomed back the walk-ons and we cheered our seniors, Polson and Hood. Fans applauded the return of Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein. Then the new arrivals entered: Floreal, Willis, Hawkins, Lee, Young, Randle, Aaron Harrison and Andrew Harrison. All of this talent assembled in one place. All of this talent assembled on one team. The desolation from the Robert Morris loss now seemed so very far away. In its place was the Big Blue dream of banner number nine.
Obviously, the dream for a National Championship is alive every year for the Big Blue Nation. After all, as Coach Calipari announced to all in attendance, “At Kentucky, we don’t play college basketball. We are college basketball.” With that one statement, Coach Cal had brought the BBN to a frenzied state. Talk began of 40-0. A perfect season to bring perfect redemption to the previous season’s letdown.
Perfection, however was not be achieved. Kentucky fans became increasingly restless as the season progressed. A few early stumbles versus MSU, UNC and Baylor had the mighty BBN concerned. How could this be? Were we going to have to relive the 2013 season of great expectations followed by greater disappointments? As conference play began, the Cats seemed to fall into a pattern of slow starts, followed by spurts of brilliance. Sometimes there was enough brilliance to get the win, but six times the Cats fell short. A once-promising season seemed destined to end as one of the most disappointing years ever.
But a funny thing happened along the way: Coach Cal made a couple of subtle changes and virtually overnight, the Cats had come together as a team. A team we had expected to see months earlier had finally arrived, and just in the nick of time. A strong showing in the SEC Tournament fell one point short of adding yet another trophy to list of Kentucky Basketball accomplishments. But the nation was on notice: these Cats were not ready to be written off as “one and done.” They were ready to take on the NCAA field of basketball giants and prove the youngest team in America could also be the best team as well. And take on the field they did, marching through to win the Midwest region and advance to the Final Four.
Whether Kentucky proves to be the best team is not yet determined. There are still two games to play for the eventual 2014 champion. What has been proven, however, is that hard work, determination and a will to win can produce a very special team. And this is one special team, one I’ve grown to love more and more each passing game. As much for myself and the BBN, I want this banner for Coach Cal and the team. They fought, they persevered, and they ignored all the naysayers on their way to this Final Four. When Saturday’s game is completed, my hope and belief is the Cats will be moving on to Monday night’s final. And I will be ready to cheer them on and will them to victory. I am ready for our Big Blue dream to come true.