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In the century plus that the University of Kentucky has played basketball, from the jump ball era through the 2-handed-set-shot epoch, across the short-pants-and-Chuck Taylor All-Stars motif and into the urban chic dunk-and-punk style of game, we have seen Wildcats of all sizes and shapes win NCAA championships.
But I’m venturing a guess we have never seen a better group of them come together and cut down the nets in the season’s final game than we did on Monday night in New Orleans.
If you have caught up on your sleep by now, perhaps you can step away from your West Virginia-style seared sofa – mine took hours to ignite, so I’m not sure how I muffed the recipe – and put UK’s eighth national championship in some sort of historical perspective.
And from the vantage point of, oh, 50 miles, give or take, mine is this:
I don’t think there ever has been a better team from UK. I think there have been only one or two better teams from anywhere.
To type these words feels bold and a bit reckless. They could leave my previously unsullied street cred lying bespoiled in the gutter of ridiculousness. You may not respect me in the morning.
But now I’ve said it, and I bow to the ghost of Adolph Rupp, the legend of Ralph Beard and Wah Wah Jones, the gap in Dan Issel’s smile and the imperious countenance of Jamal Mashburn.
This brood of Big Blue is golden.
Now, let me be fair. All I know about the Fabulous Five is the fabulous stories of their unbeatableness before they were besmirched by a horrible scandal.
I saw Hagan and Ramsey play as pros, but I don’t know Tsioropoulos from Metropolis.
I was only 4 when the Fiddlin’ Five won Kentucky’s title No. 4, although later I would listen late at nights on WLW-AM to Adrian Smith play alongside Oscar Robertson for the Cincinnati Royals.
But starting with Cotton Nash and right through Darius Miller, I’ve watched a lot of players and teams file through Lexington, and I’ve not seen one better.
Now let me admit I have no basketball baccalaureate. I once said that Lew Alcindor in his sophomore year at UCLA was no big deal, because he jogged down court, to which my coach, Joe Paul Simpson, laughed at me and said, “He’s the best player I’ve ever seen.”
You see which guy was right.
Yet, I do feel qualified to say that Anthony Davis is a Bill Russell incarnate, that Doron Lamb shoots 3-pointers with the efficiency of Pitino’s Bombinos, that Marquis Teague surprised me in the clutch and that Miller was the most embraceable UK senior since, well, maybe Jeff Sheppard.
Before Monday I would’ve argued that Pitino’s 1996 collection of all-stars was perhaps the best of any NCAA title team other than Alcindor’s crews at UCLA.
Those Cats played the game at the highest level and came at opponents in incessant waves, overpowering all they faced. They were the foundation of a 3-year run that came a couple of free throws shy of winning three titles in a row. They were a dynasty.
Antoine Walker, Tony Delk, Derek Anderson, Nazr Mohammed, Walter McCarty, Sheppard and everyone else could play the game, could make the shots, passes and rebounds necessary to win. They were team-oriented.
But were they as good a teamas what we saw molded from raw clay, cut from raw cloth by Coach John Calipari?
Could the 1996 crew beat this year’s team? Most probably, but that would have been based on depth, as Pitino pointed out. This year’s group was something different, something inspirational and beautiful.
They played as one, as family, each a well-oiled piston turning the crankshaft of a powerful engine. If you watched Monday’s game – or really any game this season – you couldn’t help but notice what that means.
You saw the expressions of support and love and confidence in one another.
You saw the best player in America, Davis, a multimillionaire-in-waiting, not score a point for hours and yet help his teammates dominate the final.
You saw the smiling, focused core of this corps, Miller, make shots, passes and rebounds that he could figured to have made in bushels if he had not been willing to step back and let younger players play ahead of him.
You saw mere teenagers display more poise than older men making millions, older men who never have played on a stage so brightly lit or to an audience this demanding, older men who in crucial moments sometimes say “you do this” rather than “we can do that.”
Some have suggested that this UK team is nothing but a bunch of pros, youngsters spending a year in college because they have to, that the education and lessons proffered to them were ill-spent funds better given to students more committed to that part of the role.
There is some logic to that notion. I can’t deny that our basketball system is imperfect and that young men who can make millions before they can buy beer shouldn’t have to be told to save their quarters for the Laundromat.
But I also can’t argue with this:
If Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague were to decide today that they were finished at UK and headed to the NBA, there could be no argument that they have proven their ability to do so.
But there also could be no question that in their year in Lexington they received a valuable education, about life, about maturity, about working as a unit rather than an individual, lessons that many who stayed four years in college have not absorbed.
They learned to be a part of a team.
And wouldn’t our world be better if all of us mastered that concept?