Game #8-769: Western Kentucky Hilltoppers vs. Kentucky WildcatsMarch 15, 2012 7:50 pm
How many layers of Kentucky can you handle? Before talking about this game, I contain many within myself. As Walt Whitman wrote, "Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain
multitudes." I am full of Kentucky contradictions. I was born to a long line of Kentucky tobacco farmers and carpenters, but I teach at a university. Born to the rural land, I live in a city (small city to most, but a city to
Kentuckians). Born to a food world of meat and potatoes, I am a vegetarian. Born to a culture where rooting for University of Kentucky basketball is not a choice, but a birthright, I cheer for the WKU Hilltoppers. And none of this creates much conflict in my immediate or extended family. Of all Kentucky traits, perhaps "family" is the strongest. It helps explain why many Kentucky hoops fans are so passionate about their teams. They are adopted family members. This creates strong reaction against "Other." The unibrowed Bighead of Bobby Knight below illustrated the point, and it conjured long-ago emotions from my childhood. Knight was a favorite villain from days as a UK fan in the Eighties. The song remains the same, and family never forgets.
My contrasts and contradictions come not through any purposeful self-negation or "raging against the machine(s)," but rather a long and continuing process of discovering individual and collective identity.
Appearances to the contrary, I echo Abraham Lincoln: "I, too, am a Kentuckian." I claim the label with pride. The fringes of a heavy central Kentucky accent remain in my voice, especially when I get upset or excited. I never feel more "at home" than I do, well, "at home" at my parents' house or driving over the
bumpy terrain of the Bluegrass State. I have no desire to live anywhere else. I enjoy breaking many of the stereotypes, but I absolutely claim the label: "Kentuckian." The sun shines bright. Weep no more my lady. Sing one song for my old Kentucky home. Yes. I, too, am a Kentuckian.
As a child, I embraced many of the more expected and visible forms of Kentucky identity. Before multiple corporate mergers, "KFC" spelled out their name in long form, and it was a state institution. My aunt worked in public relations for Kentucky Fried Chicken and as a kid I certainly consumed my fair share of the colonel's eleven herbs and spices. Every year, my entire extended family gathered to watch the Kentucky Derby at my grandmother's house to choose ponies, grill out, and perform an initial rite of Spring in the Bluegrass. And, like nearly everyone else in my class elementary school, I was a rabid UK basketball fan. In fact, I rooted for them as hard as any rural Kentucky boy could from the time I was very small until I was a twenty-year-old community college transfer to Western Kentucky University. Once I set foot on Hilltopper
soil, the transformation started. In short order, I was a full-fledged Hilltopper.
There are volumes more to say about being a Kentuckian ("I contain multitudes"), let me get to the matter at hand: last night I attended a game pitting UK against WKU in the University of Louisville's basketball arena (the Kentucky Fried Chicken Center, as it were). Earlier in the day, Murray State had waxed Colorado State on the same court. Is that enough layers of Bluegrass?
A WKU versus UK basketball tilt is about as rare as finding a vegetarian in Kentucky. In the rich history of both programs, the two have met just six times with four of those coming in tournament settings. The other
two happened when best friends Rick Pitino (UK) and Ralph Willard (WKU) coached the two programs. There is a long, bitter story behind this as well, but suffice it to say that getting Kentucky on the WKU basketball schedule proves nearly impossible. But, the bracket cares not. This game serves as a firm reminder that the bracket is a canvas on which upsets are painted. It can put WKU and UK on the court together as it pleases,
and Big State U. is powerless to stop it. There is no opting out. There is no buying out. Kentucky coal cannot save you. You must get on the court with "Midmajor U." and beat them at basketball. The bracket is bigger than any program, conference, coach, or external funding. It is simple, unforgiving, and beautiful.
Certainly, UK and WKU see the bracket differently. The Kentucky fans were here to watch their club embark on their birthright reclamation. Thousands of "8-themed" blue t-shirts told me so. Another woman wore a shirt stating: "Kentucky Basketball: This is what elite looks like!" Still another: "We invented swagger." And, my personal favorite: "Calipari's Coal Cats: Coal Powers Kentucky." You see, in large part, Kentucky coal provides the living quarters for the Kentucky basketball team at the Wildcat Coal Lodge. You just can't make this stuff up. WKU fans tend to embrace the school logo and red towel theme, but there were a few WKU vs UK-themed shirts printed up just for this game. Once the doors opened and the crowd flowed in, I felt as if I was behind enemy (concession) lines.
Despite the odds, I cannot lie: I entertained thoughts of WKU winning this game. I imagined scenarios of how it might play out. Anything is possible. But, I also knew that KenPom's Robots said the line was 24 (with a 2% chance of winning) and that Vegas agreed. And, I know that it always ends in a loss. Sixteen seeds are now 0-110 and counting against one seeds. The Hilltoppers proved their grit once again, but it takes more than grit to topple the NBA Farm Team. I only call Kentucky that because at this stage, it is self-proclaimed.
After the 2010 NBA draft Kentucky coach John Calipari stated that the 2010 NBA draft was "the biggest day in the history of Kentucky's program." The Cats had five players drafted in the first round that day. This year, they have perhaps the top two draft picks and an outside chance at having three players drafted in the top 10 picks. And, to be clear, they looked the part.
UK blasted out to a 10-0 lead, and sitting way up in section 304, I feared I would never get to fully exercise my lungs in a meaningful Topper yell in this contest. How quickly we forget: WKU will always come back. It's what we do. The Toppers punched right back with a 12-0 run fueled by emerging freshmen T.J. Price and my lungs enjoyed several full bellows during that run. From there, the Tops had a Wildcat by the tail, but they held on tightly. Kentucky's lead inched upward, but WKU remained in striking distance...until just before the half. A couple of rushed Topper shots, a couple of transition baskets, and a timely Doron Lamb three inflated the lead to 19 at half. Despite the many past WKU comebacks, this felt like a different animal.
The second half brought little relief as the lead grew and (surely) people changed the channel across the nation. At one dead ball timeout late in the game, the score was 74-42. But, down in the Topper huddle, WKU coach Ray Harper was frantically waving his arms. The players were locked in. The lead was insurmountable, and everyone knew it, but in a way that is hard to explain, this provided a sense of calm and hope. Not for this game, mind you, but of trajectory. The direction of the WKU program is upward and the pace feels rapid. In this moment of certain defeat on this night, the feeling of appreciation and forward momentum was palpable. And, as if on cue, the Tops came out of that timeout and went on a 24-7 run to end the game. Yes, the outcome was decided, but that is precisely the point. Hang the upset, the run came just the same. It always does.
All of those past comebacks carried with them the promise of beating a rival (a fine MTSU team) or advancing in a do-or-die tourney (multiple Sun Belt tourney games). This one? This allowed one final run to simply finish the season strong and put up a respectable score against the NBA Farm Team. This allowed true freshman George Fant to put his body into this June's number one draft pick and score on multiple occasions. This allowed lone senior Kahlil McDonald to say "good-bye" with some long threes in the last
It always ends with a loss, but this time, the loss did not feel much like an end. In fact, it feels as if this improbable run to the bracket serves as the beginning of a long, golden era at WKU as much as it does an end to this unlikely hot streak at the end of this season. And, despite the fact that the YUM! Center stands a basketball palace for the University of Louisville, and that the arena was a sea of Kentucky blue during the game, and that Murray State is the non-Power power in the state this year, I left the arena filled with deep satisfaction, pride, and hope for the future of WKU hoops.
I will root for "Midmajor" Nation over our Big State U.'s here in the Bluegrass for the rest of the tournament, but that is as true to Kentuckian identity as Big Blue Nation.
"I, too, am a Kentuckian."