Kentucky’s Elite Eight Loss: A Season To Remember, Even In Defeat

bled(Author’s Note: To those of you just checking out the site, please also be sure to visit late Wednesday afternoon, March 31, when Aaron will be publishing a special “tribute,” to all the Kentucky fans who’ve been kind enough to reach out to him since Saturday evening. Thanks.)

I wasn’t planning on writing tonight. It’s been a long week, and a long month and a long college basketball season. Truthfully, I was really just hoping to kick my feet up, grab a few beers, watch some hoops and hit the hay early. Seemed like a perfect Saturday night to me.

But with West Virginia having just beaten Kentucky, here I am in front of my computer, trying to collect my thoughts on this game, and this Kentucky team. A team that might not be playing for a National Championship next weekend, but still may go down as the most fascinating of my lifetime.

Now make no mistake, I’m not a Kentucky fan. Quite honestly, I’ve never even been inside the states borders. And for most of my life I never really gave their basketball team much thought either. At least until December 9, when the Wildcats took on my UConn Huskies inside Madison Square Garden.

As I tried my hardest to describe the following day in my piece, “Kentucky-UConn: A Final Four In December,” the level of fandom that I saw from the Big Blue faithful that night was unparalleled. I’m still fascinated, all these months later, at the passion the fan base had that night, when easily 10,000 people wearing royal blue and white filled the Garden to cheer for their team. For a a mid-week, seemingly meaningless, non-conference game.

I knew that what I had seen, and what I had written touched a nerve, when after publishing that article the following day, I had an inbox full of e-mails from Kentucky fans, and close to 100 comments on my old website (unfortunately, when the site got redesigned to look like this, those comments disappeared forever) all thanking me for documenting that game for them. To this day, that was the single most well received piece I’ve ever written. And I will forever be in debt to all Kentucky fans, and those who took the time to reach out to me.

After that experience, both at Madison Square Garden, and the following response as well, I started to follow Kentucky quite closely. Not just because of the graciousness of their fans, but because as the season went on, Kentucky happened to become the single most polarizing college basketball team I can ever remember.

It’s a strange thing when you think about it, but because of the constant turnover of players, teams, coaches and everything else, college basketball has become a niche sport over the last couple years. It just doesn’t seem as “mainstream,” as it was even a decade ago, and truthfully it’s understandable why. Most casual fans would just as soon not get attached to a team, especially when they know that seem team will be completely overhauled just a few months from now. Why even bother.

Yet for some reason, this particular Kentucky team resonated. The sport’s highest paid coach brought an All-Star team together on the game’s biggest stage, for what everyone knew would be only one great run toward a championship. Even though Kentucky had no seniors that played more than a handful of minutes, this group was only getting one chance to win the ultimate prize. It was a perfect storm.

And from tip-off of the first game, everyone had an opinion on them. People who’d previously had no interest in the sport suddenly became interested in college basketball again. Casual fans of the NCAA Tournament started watching games in January. You either loved or hated Kentucky this year, there wasn’t much middle ground. You either appreciated the finest collection of young basketball talent in years, or loathed the Wildcats, for being the bane of everything that’s wrong with the sport. A group of kids who (at least on the the surface) appeared to have no interest in playing college ball beyond their required one year, before cashing NBA paychecks.

Me? Personally, I never really understood the disdain that many had for them, and grew to like this team. This group of guys didn’t ask for the all the media attention, or to be the face of the NBA’s one-and-done rule, a rule, which by the way, they had no control over. Would John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe, Daniel Orton and a few others be in college if there wasn’t an age restriction? Who am I to know? But there is that restriction, and they ended up at Kentucky. And it never seemed very fair to me that these 18 and 19-year-old kids got so much grief, from so many nationwide. They just came to Kentucky to play basketball, not to be America’s bad guys.

But beyond just being an interesting team to follow, they became a favorite of mine to watch too.

Sure they were young. But over time you grew to appreciate all their little quirks and deficencies, the way you would do the same after dating someone for awhile. Was DeMarcus Cousins too emotional at times this year? Of course he was. But everytime I heard someone complain about it during a broadcast, I thought to myself, “Who wasn’t emotional when they were 19?” I know I was. These were the kinds of things that you might not have liked about Kentucky if you only watched them half a dozen times this year. Watch them 25 or 30 times though, and you start to realize that Cousins was only emotional because he wanted to win so bad. Oh, and because he won’t even be 20-years-old until August.

Anyway, much like the rest of the season, when Kentucky entered the NCAA Tournament, they again divided America. You were only in one of two camps: They were either going to win the National Championship because they were the best team, or not going to win it because they were too young. Again, there was no middle ground. This time, I was in the second group.

But as the tournament went on, the Wildcats started to swing me again. Not only were they bigger, faster, stronger and more physical than East Tennessee State, Wake Forest and Cornell, they were doing the little things that had plagued them all season: Consistently making free throws and open jump shots, playing great defense, and getting big leads early and putting the opposition away for good. Forget youth, Coach Cal was working his March magic again.

On Saturday night though, Kentucky ran into a team that was just as big, as nasty and as mean as they were. West Virginia didn’t back down after Kentucky jumped out to an initial lead, but instead stayed calm and punched right back. It was on.

And as the game went on, all those little things Kentucky did that got them to the Elite Eight were starting to come unglued. They finished the game 4 for 32 from the 3-point line, and barely made half their foul shots.

What I noticed more than anything though, was their body language. For the first time that I saw all season, guys were moving a bit slower. They were walking with their heads down. They were physically and emotionally defeated. They just looked younger and more inexperienced than West Virginia. It took until March 27, but they had finally run into a team that was simply better than them.

As the final seconds ticked down, with Wall and Cousins- the two posterboys for this team- on the bench, a weird feeling came over me. I actually felt bad. Really bad. Not like the feeling that I have when my team loses, but different.

Again, this was a group of kids that was brought together for one year to do something great, and as the final seconds ticked off, you could see that each and every one of them was realizing that the dream was coming to an end quick. Six months of hard work, done. Every person has to find out the hard way that life isn’t always how you imagine it. For these guys, it was Saturday night.

I felt bad again, because this was a team that had been judged, mocked and sometimes ridiculed in every corner of the college basketball world since November. How would I have felt as a freshman in college, if some people seemed to get a joy out of one of the worst moments of my life? Not too good I’m assuming. Again, I think too often this season people forgot that these were teenage kids, someone’s young sons, and not paid professionals. They didn’t deserve all the negatively directly, or indirectly thrown their way.

Believe it or not, I actually felt bad for John Calipari too. I know what you’re thinking: “Aaron, how can you feel bad for Cal? Why?” Well I did and I still do.

I feel bad because before the game was even over people were already criticizing the guy, and questioning his way of doing things. Now I know that he’s an adult, and a public figure, and this is the world we live in. I also know that he’s the highest paid coach in the game. But when I hear idiots on Twitter and message boards saying dumb stuff like, “Well, when you live by freshmen, you die by freshmen,” it makes me just shake my head. Are these people serious? This guy is the best at what he does, hands down. Almost 12 months ago exactly, he took over a program that couldn’t even make the NCAA Tournament and coached them to 35 wins and the brink of the Final Four. Can we give him a little credit where it’s due?

Finally, I felt the worst for the fans.

As a fellow sports fan, I know how it is, as do millions worldwide. We follow our teams through the preseason and regular season, getting to know the players almost too well along the way. We get to know their strengths and weaknesses, not to mention their moods and emotions. We read every message board, blog and newspaper article. We get a little too immersed in everything going on, all with the hope that our team will be the last one standing at the end of the year, even though realistically we know the odds are against us. When it doesn’t end as hoped, we all get a pit in the bottom of our stomach, that it sometimes takes days or weeks to get rid of.

But beyond that, I know how much this particular team meant to Kentucky fans. I have an inbox full of e-mails to prove it. I’ve been lucky to correspond with a few Kentucky fans throughout this season, and they’ve been nice enough to take me along for the ride with them. Hell, as I said in December, I met a Kentucky fan after the UConn game that was holding back tears, over a win in his team’s ninth game of the season. John Calipari will get a lot more victories during his time at Kentucky, but this team was different. It wasn’t just about these kids, and this year, but about all the underperforming and underachieving teams the last decade before them too. You always remember the one that got away, and I have a feeling that’s the way Kentucky fans will feel about this group for a long time.

So to any Kentucky fan who may be reading, I just want you to know, that I understand your pain. It would be unfair of me to say that I feel it with you tonight, but I know what you’re going through, and I know it’s not easy.

And I know it doesn’t mean much now, but just realize that there aren’t many teams that would have kept me up until after midnight writing about them following an Elite Eight loss. But your team is one of them.

This Kentucky team was one of the single most fascinating teams of my lifetime, and I’ll tell you this: Two Monday’s from now, we’re going to crown a new National Champion. Maybe it’ll be Butler, or West Virginia. I don’t know.

But what I do is, not to take anything away from whoever does win the 2010 National Championship, but we won’t remember this season for them. We will remember it for Calipari, Cousins, Wall and Kentucky though.

The Wildcats won’t win a National Championship this year.

But this Kentucky team was most certainly one of a kind.

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About Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres works for Fox Sports, and was previously a best-selling author of the book 'The Unlikeliest Champion.' He currently uses Aaron Torres Sports to occasionally weigh-in on the biggest stories from around sports. He has previously done work for such outlets as Sports Illustrated, SB Nation and Slam Magazine.