RUSSELL SPRINGS, Ky. -- Some of you are closer to 18 than I am, and can more vividly recall that moment you received your first college acceptance letter. It might not have been the school you ended up attending, or your top choice, but what a sense of profound relief that was. Remember?
Everything is enhanced, giant, life-or-death, and a major fork in the road at that age. Being accepted to college, any college, means avoiding the uneducated path, the one that leads to McDonald's shift management, the trailer park, and God knows what else. When my letter arrived, thick enough for extra postage, I knew my future was assured and bright; the sleepless nights ended right then. And it was all thanks to the University of Kentucky.
I ended up going elsewhere, farther west, even though UK was the only one of the five schools that let me in and offered me a full academic scholarship. There's another me, somewhere in the multiverse, who moved to Lexington, became a lockstep member of the Big Blue Nation, and who ended up writing about the Tubby trajectory (just like 1,000 other writers). That me is not here, nowhere around here.
I honestly don't remember why I applied to attend the University of Kentucky. It might have had something to do with basketball, maybe a desire to be part of something bigger. When I drive across Kentucky, like I did early this morning, I try to recall why. Whenever I'm here, I feel a little pull towards this place, as if I am trying to reunite with that other wayward soul-fragment, and I try to understand that feeling as well. It feels like home, the warm-inside I experience in other places -- like the far eastern edge of Los Angeles County, or Greenwich Village, or Indianapolis. Kentucky is the home I could have had.
And what a home it would have been! The weather tends to be as extreme as an afternoon nap. They call it bluegrass because blue is a known word. The real color is a soft, vibrant green that would require a paragraph to explain. The hills and mountains rise behind the meadows and forests, a hundred shades of blue and gray, and it's most beautiful at sunrise. It's best just as the fog and mist are giving up control of the sky.
Kentucky's magnet worked on me again a decade ago. In 2001, when the industry collapsed, there was an escape hatch. There was a girl, and there was this house in Lexington, but in the end I lived off the end of the banked savings in Philadelphia. Four years later, again. Bowling Green was the farthest south the 100 Games Project went (Game 63), and the trip produced an entry about UK and Louisville and Western Kentucky, and the place of college basketball in the Commonwealth State's culture. Driving into town that day, I felt an overwhelming sense of here. I called my then-wife on the phone immediately. "You have to see this place," I managed. "It's perfect."
It is perfect. In basketball terms, it's the only place like this left, where Our Game is the most important sport in the world. Even Indiana, the state where it's not just basketball, has had its purity poisoned by the Colts, who overwhelm the mind-share market at this time of year. In Kentucky, basketball is everything.
But the things I loved most about Kentucky, and still do, are the simplicity and lack of ambition. A variety of forces keeps people from ever wanting to leave. People grow up, go to college, or don't, find spouses, raise families, wear their religion like an extra limb, and leave enough for their children so they can repeat the process. Joy is found in the forests, or looking at horses, or hanging out in caves, or going to basketball games.
My life was getting more complicated every year, a growing collection of scattered stories. I grew up to be just like my parents, a couple of New York City kids who did what they wanted to do, whose separate drives and ambitions kept them from being good to each other or to their children. Kentucky represented a way to roll all of that back, set it right. A part of me always knew Kentucky was there, even when I was a teenager.
I'm writing this from a wood-paneled restaurant deep in the middle of the state. It's early morning, Central Standard Time. Fox News is on the overhead television, and the booths are full of easy, happy chatter. The men drink their coffee and share sections of the newspaper. There's a line for the sports page. Most of them have ballcaps on, some with the names of NASCAR drivers and others with the names of local supply companies. A few wear XXL-size sweats, others are dressed in slim-cut checkerboard flannel shirts.
I can see myself at one of those tables, and not at this one. Here, the coffee's going cold, the check is unpaid, and the waitress is giving me that look. It's time to settle up and leave, off to the land of club soda unbridled.
Red Line Upsets
Rider 77, at Southern California 57 -- The Broncs were bad last year, but it was all due to defense. Ninth in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference in most categories. The senior inside-outside combo of Justin Robinson and Mike Ringgold can fill it up, so I notched Rider third in the wide-open MAAC, figuring that even the slightest improvement on the other end would send the team upwards. Holding a Pac-10 team to .83 points per trip will do. After 15 minutes, Rider broke open a 23-all tie and held USC to 17 points over the ensuing 20 minutes. Robinson shot 9-for-10 and finished with 28. So yeah, Rider.
at Seattle 83, Oregon State 80 -- We watched most of this game at a Buffalo Wild Wings, and were more impressed by Seattle's public relations than their comeback. This, remember, is a team that has nothing to play for until 2013. Still, they play in a former NBA arena, have their games televised by the local Fox Sports Net affiliate, and have slick ticket ads. Other D-I independents, like, say, Longwood, are not quite this ambitious. Side note: there were a relatively staggering 46 turnovers in this 85-possession game (Seattle had a 29.5 percent turnover rate and still won). Could it have had anything to do with the fact that Seattle wore red uniforms and Oregon State wore orange? Two wins keeps the average steady at 10 percent. There have now been 15 Red Line Upsets from 148 chances.
Game! Of! The! Night!
South Carolina-Upstate vs. Wofford Charleston, SC (Neutral Court) 2:30 EST
Last season, we asked why the two Division I teams in Spartanburg, South Carolina didn't play each other. The answer comes now, but it took the good people at ESPN to make it happen. In the opening game of the Charleston Classic, the first D-I meeting of Wofford and USC Upstate. It's a city game in another city.
America knows Wofford now. They're the champions of the Southern Conference, and could very well have upset Wisconsin in the NCAA first round if not for a bounce or a badly-called foul here or there. The Terriers are the consensus pick to repeat, and brought back a strong senior class, highlighted by 6-7 SoCon POY Noah Dahlman. They've missed out on their first two RLU opportunities against Minnesota and Clemson, but they'll have their chances to break through in the cross-state Multi-Team Event.
Then there's Upstate. The bad news is that they lost 65 games in their three transitional seasons. The good news: they're eligible for the NCAA Tournament now! Will they get there this season? No! But there's satisfaction to be found in having been there from the beginning. The star of the D-I come-up, 7-foot-3 Nick "Big Jesus" Schneiders, is gone now, and there will be a lot of non-conference losses as they find their way, like the 66-35 drop to Michigan last week. A good sign for the future is that they've slowed things down and taken care of the ball early, and have only 24 turns in their first two games. But there's a long way to go.