Sunday, March 9, 2008

The Pride of Kentucky

There is nothing quite like Senior Day at Kentucky. The pageantry, the history, the emotion. Nothing quite compares. This year was no exception.

If you had asked me at the beginning of the year what my thoughts were on this year's Kentucky team, I would have pointed to their youth, their new coach, and the potential problems they posed. I was cautiously hopeful, but not overly optimistic about this team and their prospects. We lost a lot from last year, and there were no players on this team that I felt a connection to--not the way I felt connected Chuck Hayes or Tayshaun Prince.

But now, this team has become one of my all time favorite Kentucky teams. As much as the Hayes teams, or the Prince teams...more than the Comeback Cats of the '98 title run or the unbelievable '96 Championship team. This team, led by the seniors, has worked their way into my heart like no other team in my long association with Kentucky Wildcat Basketball.

This team has had more opportunities than most to make excuses for themselves. With only two seniors and one junior, they could have used their extreme youth as an excuse. Or their long list of injuries which reads more like the Football team's injury report--Jasper, Meeks, Carter, Harris, Crawford, Bradley, Patterson--could have given them the perfect cover. Perhaps they could have used the loss of their only true big man (Morris), as well as their senior leader (Perry), and their coach all in one year to explain their early season slump. But they didn't.

Even when the rest of us had lost hope. After the home losses to Garner Webb and San Diego. After blow out losses to Indiana and North Carolina. After most everyone had written them off. This team didn't quit. They didn't make excuses. They didn't lay down. They didn't quit.

What they did was buckle down, focus, and start taking one game at a time. They started playing hard, playing to their strengths, playing to win. True, the games have been close, but they've managed to win the close ones. The games haven't always been pretty, but they've managed to win the ugly ones. And even when it seemed like life was throwing everything it had at these Cats, they played hard and left everything on the floor. They managed to turn this season around.

At Christmas, it looked like we might not win a conference game and would be lucky to make the NIT. Now, they have played their way into serious consideration for a NCAA berth and the #2 seed in the SEC East. And the ones leading the charge? Bradley and Crawford. The two seniors and the heart and soul of this team.

All that is left of one of the most highly touted recruiting classes in UK history, Ramel Bradley, the gregarious character from New York, New York and Joe Crawford, the more reserved shooter from Detroit have stuck out their four years at UK. Bradley began in the shadow of Rajon Rondo, and never really came into his own until after Rondo left for the NBA. Crawford wanted too much too soon and had a yo-yo couple of years before he finally settled down and decided to stay at UK for good.

This year they have put this over acheving team on their backs and have played as hard as any two guys could play. They have played as many minutes as anyone could. They have played through injuries and controversy. They have stepped up with we needed it, and have inspired others to step up as well. They are the reason this season has been salvaged.

Today was a fitting was to send them off. They broke a 7 game losing streak to Florida. They pretty much assured themselves a spot in the NCAA tournament. They finished out the regular season with a win. They proved why they are worthy to play for the most storied program in all of college basketball.

I couldn't be prouder of this team and what they have done, and I couldn't be prouder of how the two seniors have led them. And, as the strains of My Old Kentucky Home filled the rafters at Rupp after the game, you could almost feel the spirits of all those who have worn Kentucky Blue, all those whose names hang in those hallowed rafters, smiling down at this team and their senior leader as they proved once again what it means to wear KENTUCKY on your chest. And why they are the Pride of Kentucky.

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