ARLINGTON, Texas — Thomas Duncan was serving in Afghanistan last year when he decided to put his name in the pool for Final Four tickets.
The Hopkinsville resident and chief warrant officer in the Fort Campbell-based 101st Airborne Division is a diehard Kentucky basketball fan. He kept up with the Cats while overseas, and he knew all about the high expectations for this season.
Even before he found out that he had been chosen for tickets — and long before UK punched its own ticket to the Final Four — Duncan made the necessary arrangements to be here this week.
On Friday, he stood in the AT&T Stadium bleachers with his wife and three kids, all anxiously waiting for the Cats to hit the court for their final practice for Saturday's game against Wisconsin.
Duncan said he always had faith in John Calipari, but a month ago — after surprising losses to Arkansas and South Carolina — he started getting restless.
"I was like, 'Wow, I can't believe this is happening,'" he said. "I even got on Coach Cal's Facebook page and put a message on there that he needs to shake those guys up or something.
"And then when March came around, I started getting excited again."
The rest of the Duncan family came down to the Dallas area last weekend for spring break, so Thomas was alone back in Kentucky when Aaron Harrison's three-pointer sent the Cats to the Final Four.
"I was excited," he said Friday.
"You lost your mind," one of his kids quickly corrected.
On the other side of the stadium, 12-year-old Drew Dunson wore a No. 3 Kentucky jersey — "for Nerlens Noel," he said — and also eagerly awaited the UK team's arrival.
Drew sat next to father, Stephen, who wasn't wearing attire affiliated with any of the four schools who will play here Saturday.
The Dunsons are from nearby Aledo, Texas. Nobody in their family is from Kentucky, and nobody in their family ever attended UK. Yet Drew is a huge fan of the Wildcats.
He smiled as he talked excitedly about UK sports, showing off blue and gray braces that he picked out especially for the NCAA Tournament. Drew couldn't wait to see fellow Texan Julius Randle come out on the court. He reminisced about previous favorites, like Anthony Davis and John Wall.
His father just smiled and shook his head.
"He's always liked them for some reason," Stephen Dunson said. "He's just crazy about UK, and I don't know how he got that way because nobody in our family is from Kentucky. Nobody's ever gone to school there, but that's where he wants to go to school. Isn't that wild?"
The Dunsons attended UK's victory at Texas A&M last season, but they don't have tickets to Saturday's game.
Stephen, knowing his son's love for all things UK basketball, decided he'd pull Drew out of school for the day so the sixth-grader could see his favorite players on the practice floor.
"He's sick today, don't you know," dad said with a smile.
Sandi Neville is a UK fan in town this weekend who won't be able to miss school, but the Jeffersonville, Ind., teacher is on spring break, so she's taking advantage of it.
When Neville took her taxes to be done a few days ago, she had one request. "I just said, 'Get me enough money to get to Texas.'"
Those returns came back Wednesday morning, and the refund was big enough to afford a trip to see her Cats play Saturday night. She got online Wednesday and found tickets, and then Neville and her mother jumped in the car Thursday night for the 13-hour drive from Indiana to North Texas.
The two sleep-deprived fans showed up Friday for practice. They'll be back Saturday night for the game, but then it's back home Sunday, win or lose.
Neville has to be in her classroom first thing Monday morning.
"I'm going to be a cranky teacher," she said. "I'm going to be exhausted. But it'll be totally worth it."
Ben Roberts: (859) 231-3216. Twitter: @NextCats. Blog: UKrecruiting.bloginky.com.