UK's Senior Day should be for seniors

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 5, 2010 

Among the many things Rick Pitino got right during his tenure as Kentucky basketball coach was how to handle Senior Day for departing non-seniors.

You'll recall that in 1993 with Jamal Mashburn and again in 1997 for Ron Mercer, Pitino and Kentucky recognized star players turning pro early with post-game ceremonies following the last regular-season home contest.

These were separate from UK's traditional pre-game Senior Day recognition for players who are, well, seniors.

Says here that's exactly the way to handle such scenarios.

The subject is again relevant because Kentucky may have — what, one, two, three, maybe even four? — star underclassmen who will be entering the NBA Draft after this season and therefore will be performing for the final time in Rupp Arena Sunday when the Cats face Florida.

If UK wants to say thanks in a public way to players such as Patrick Patterson, John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins who may already be certain they will be turning pro, I think it's a classy thing to do.

I just don't think anyone who is not a senior should be included in the pre-game Senior Day ritual.

Reason One. There is something special about sticking it out in a major college sports program — enduring the grueling pre-season conditioning regimens, the draining practices, the impossible-to-please coaches the manic-depressive fan bases and the school work — for four full years.

That is deserving of a unique public recognition.

Reason Two. Given the realities of big-time college basketball in the modern era, a team's seniors are apt not to be stars. That is certainly the case for Kentucky's three-man senior class in 2010.

You have two role players, Perry Stevenson and Ramon Harris, who have ridden things out through three head coaches in four years. There is also Mark Krebs, a Kentuckian who transferred to UK from an NCAA Division III school as a walk-on and eventually earned a scholarship.

These are the kind of kids who deserve at least one moment of their own in the limelight.

Senior Day is it.

Which is not to say others don't deserve some kind of honors on the season's last home game if it will be their final go-round as collegians.

By now, surely there is no stigma in the minds of reasonable people attached to college athletes turning pro before their eligibility expires. If you can change the financial destiny of your family for generations by merely taking a job, why wouldn't you do it?

If mega-star freshmen Wall and Cousins already know they are going to put their names in the NBA Draft, it would actually be smart for UK and John Calipari to announce that in advance of Sunday's game.

The reason is that the NCAA Tournament brings with it both heavy national media presence and an open-locker room policy. So the UK star freshmen are going to get asked the "are you turning pro?" question one gazillion times during the NCAAs if they haven't cleared it up before March Madness.

So if they know the answer is yes, saying so now would both allow Kentucky to honor them Sunday and would ultimately help keep the focus on the Cats' bid to win the national title by removing all the pros speculation.

Among the UK underclassmen who might depart early, the most deserving of recognition is, of course, Patterson.

The junior forward came to Kentucky three years ago as a McDonald's All-America at a time when recruits of that caliber weren't, for whatever reason, picking UK.

In Lexington, Patterson has been both a star-caliber player and, to my knowledge, an unmitigated class act off the court. He has frequently spoken of his intention to graduate in three years.

For all those reasons, I suspect UK will feel the pull to include Patterson in the actual Senior Day ceremonies.

If they do, it's not exactly an outrage.

But if Mashburn — the most "important" UK player in my lifetime because of his role in Pitino's post-NCAA probation rebuilding project — didn't get that treatment I don't think any subsequent UK player should.

So if Patterson is leaving after this year (actually, his public statements don't sound like he wants to go) his recognition should come after Sunday's game, not before.

Call it old school, but the Senior Day ceremony should be for seniors. Any other player recognition, however deserving, should be separate and apart.

In this case, UK basketball should stay with the Pitino precedent.

Reach Mark Story at (859) 231-3230 or (800) 950-6397, Ext. 3230, or mstory@herald-leader.com. Your e-mail could appear on the blog Read Mark Story's E-mail at Kentucky.com

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