UK relevant again, IU getting there

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistDecember 12, 2009 

John Clay

We know. We get it.

Kentucky is really 4-5. It should have lost to Miami and Sam Houston State and Stanford and North Carolina and probably a YMCA team or two, and most definitely to Connecticut in the Garden, where afterward John Calipari kept telling all of New Yawk his young team was driving him absolutely batty.

Yada, yada, yada.

It's not that we don't believe you, coach, because really, truly we see your point.

But we also see the point of a Kentucky fan who happened to be sitting in front of me on the plane from Charlotte to LaGuardia on Wednesday.

The Blue traveler was having a conversation with the friendly flight attendant seated in front of the exit row.

"Well, I hope your team wins tonight," the attendant said as we prepared to deplane.

"To tell you the truth," the Kentucky fan said, "it's just nice to be relevant again."

Bingo!

Yes, 9-0 is some kind of wonderful, and John Wall is from another planet, and everyone is sleeping on Patrick Patterson, and that No. 4 national ranking should be accompanied by a bullet.

But for the Big Blue Nation, the true gift this holiday season is that the CBW (college basketball world) is back to talking about the Cats.

And the talk isn't about how the fans are bashing Tubby Smith. Or how Billy Gillispie is mistreating sideline reporters. Or how the Cats just lost out on another mega-star recruit.

Nor is the talk in the same vein as the talk the CBW is talking about Indiana, as UK heads into Saturday's game at Bloomington against the Hoosiers — a game the Cats could easily lose. (We could get punched in the mouth," Calipari said Friday, proving that like any coach he believes in repetition.)

Conventional wisdom says Indiana's Tommy Crean is a terrific coach (he is), and a great recruiter (he is), and he's a great fit for the IU job (ditto) following a disastrous predecessor, but it's going to take time for the Hoosiers to return to classic rock.

Calipari followed a banana-peel hire, too. He's a great coach. And an off-the-charts recruiter. But there hasn't been the same waiting period. Despite Cal's protests, the Cats are pretty darn good right here, right now.

"We do have a will to win," admitted the coach again Friday.

Of course, that will to win translates much quicker when you have a player as talented as John Wall. In a four-day span, against two teams from last year's Final Four, Wall has more than proved that he's even better than the real thing. And in this day and time, that's a feat as rare as a day without another Tiger Woods bimbo eruption.

But let's gush a little over Wall's supporting cast, too. Patterson did score 16 points Wednesday night despite limping on a bad ankle. DeMarcus Cousins managed his fourth double-double (10 points, 10 boards) while bumping chests with those Big East bullies.

And, let us not forget, the Cats played defense well enough to shoot 39 percent from the floor and still grind out a victory against a team from a conference that prides itself on being grinders.

Indiana is a team of hustlers. The Hoosiers play hard, and Crean has improved the talent level, and will continue to do so.

Saturday should be fun in that, unlike Wednesday, the opposing coaches like each other. Crean and Calipari are buddies, stretching back to before their Conference USA days. Now they have similar jobs — returning historical basketball powers to their glory days.

Crean's recovery project is showing progress in Bloomington. Hold on Hoosiers, it's coming.

At Kentucky, meanwhile, no waiting, sweet relevancy is already here.

Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com.

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