Fans want Kentucky to be Kentucky: Dominant, preeminent, unassailable. Recent games showed again how it's only getting harder for any program to rule so supremely.
Kentucky learned firsthand at South Carolina on Tuesday. Anointed No. 1 in The Associated Press poll for the first time in seven years on Monday, the Cats lost at S.C. Credit Devan Downey, arguably the best player on the floor. Credit the timely contributions of Downey's heretofore nondescript teammates. Credit second-year coach and Lexington native Darrin Horn, who maximized the resources of his short-handed team.
But also credit what Kentucky Coach John Calipari called the "ridiculous environment" inside Colonial Life Arena.
Message: the rest of the Southeastern Conference really cares about basketball.
"I had two basketball programs in the SEC tell me at the spring meetings that our place was the toughest place to play last year," South Carolina Athletics Director Eric Hyman said later in the week. "The students have really gotten into basketball."
Hyman considers those students, who wear fatigues to games and go by the name of "Garnet Army," as a key ingredient in the school's "recipe for success." Their enthusiasm gets the arena rocking.
"I love it," Hyman said. "Because it makes those fuddy-duddies get off their seats."
South Carolina had only a .403 winning percentage in league games entering this season. Yet Hyman sold Horn on the program's potential.
"I told Darrin when we were recruiting him to come here that the thing you have to understand is South Carolina is a closet basketball school," Hyman said. "... They love their basketball here."
As Hyman saw it, Horn has given South Carolina fans a reason to believe. He gave them hope.
"If you show hope, they continue to come, and I think that's what Darrin has done," Hyman said. "I think all programs in college athletics have to create hope."
In his first year, Horn guided South Carolina to a share of the SEC Eastern Division championship. Hyman recalled seeing the emotional reaction to the Gamecocks' last-second victory over Florida. The scene defied the notion of football being the only sport that fascinates SEC fans.
"People were hugging and crying," he said. "I'm serious."
Another new face, Mark Fox, has energized Georgia, supposedly another outpost far from basketball's center stage. Last weekend the Bulldogs made the most of their first sellout in three years by beating Tennessee.
Columnist Mike Strange of the Knoxville News Sentinel noted how Georgia Athletics Director Damon Evans basked in the atmosphere. "I want people to know that this is what a true basketball atmosphere feels like," Evans said.
Seeking to duplicate the magic Bruce Pearl infused in Tennessee basketball, Evans dismissed Dennis Felton as coach last season and then hired Fox.
"Tennessee has done great things with their basketball program," Evans said. "Florida has done great things with their basketball program.
"Those are schools that are historically known for football. We're one of those schools. I believe we can have both a great football program and a great basketball program."
Charging the court
Abide by the SEC's well-intended desire to prevent celebrating fans from rushing onto the basketball court or football field, or allow fans to express the joy produced by a memorable victory?
Athletics directors face that dilemma. Safety of fans, players and others is a top priority. Yet, you don't want to be a killjoy.
UK Director of Athletics Mitch Barnhart has found it difficult to criticize his school's long-suffering football fans from charging the field to celebrate a significant victory. So Kentucky found a sensible middle ground: take down the goal posts so no one gets bonked on the head by falling metal. All but usher fans to the field. Pay the fine.
South Carolina Athletics Director Eric Hyman adopted that approach after the Gamecocks beat No. 1 Kentucky on Tuesday night.
It quickly became obvious that the visible appearance of security personnel would not prevent fans from charging onto the court. So, at least around media seating on the end line closest to UK's bench, there was an orderly stampede.
One student even asked politely for permission to step on and over the tables where reporters set their computers.
"I told (the fans) I'll cover this one," Hyman said. "I'll handle this fine."
But Hyman acknowledged his anxiety in watching the scene unfold. "The worst thing that could happen, and it would mar that game, is somebody broke their leg.
"And that scares you to death."
Only the night before South Carolina beat Kentucky, fans charged the court at a Division II game between Augusta State and USC Aiken. Photos on the Internet suggested a melee unfolded. But Brian Hand, a sports information staffer for USC Aiken, said the photos exaggerated what he described as "a little pushing and shoving."
But, Hand added, "it was scary."
The celebration in Columbia marked the second time South Carolina fans have violated the SEC rule banning fans from charging the field or court. The first came in 2005 when, again, Kentucky was the opponent.
The first incident drew a $5,000 fine. The second offense on Tuesday drew a $25,000 fine. A third offense in the next three years would bring a $50,000 fine.
When a reporter suggested that Barnhart views the fines as an acceptable price to pay for fans to express happiness, Hyman laughed and said, "Mitch may have more money than we do."
Fine to Haiti?
The newspaper in Columbia, The State, reported that a South Carolina trustee suggested that the $25,000 fine be donated to the Red Cross relief fund for Haiti earthquake victims.
"That's unexpected revenue that, but for some exuberance from our fans, our conference wouldn't be receiving anyway," said trustee Chuck Allen, a former South Carolina football player. "It seems like it'd be a nice, goodwill gesture."
Money from these fines usually goes toward the SEC's McWhorter Scholar-Athlete Post-Graduate Scholarship Fund.
Is there any doubt that Devan Downey is the SEC's most compelling player? It's impossible not to watch his combination of quickness, skill and brainpower at work. The David-versus-Goliath thing he's got going (he's listed at 5-foot-9 and 175 pounds) only enhances the effect.
"Everybody loves him," South Carolina Athletic Director Eric Hyman said. "Because he has so much energy. ... The energy is sincere energy. The excitement is sincere, not contrived. He is a fierce, fierce competitor. He's a winner."
The day after leading South Carolina to the upset victory over Kentucky, Downey said he had 214 unread text messages and 113 missed calls on his phone. He also did interviews with USA Today, ESPN, Fox Sports, CBSSports and AOL.
After South Carolina beat Kentucky, Devan Downey encouraged fans to charge the court. He waved his arms to motion fans to come on down.
"Devan and I are going to have a little talk," Athletic Director Eric Hyman said.
When asked what he wanted to say to Downey, Hyman jokingly suggested he'd dock $25,000 from Downey's first pro contract.
Evolving reports that freshman DeMarcus Cousins threw a punch or a couple of soft uppercuts or nothing at all at a fan who charged the court after Tuesday night's game touched a nerve. UK Coach John Calipari has repeatedly noted the progress Cousins has made controlling his temper.
By week's end, Calipari cited vague sources in saying Cousins did not throw a punch. Columbia-based reporter Bob Shields backed off slightly, saying he could not be 100 percent sure Cousins was the large Kentucky player he saw punch at a fan. Other reporters only saw Cousins being hustled off the court by UK personnel.
Ironically, Shields has repeatedly defended the actions of the UK player he continues to insist he saw get physical with a fan.
"As I have said from the beginning, I believe the fan must share responsibility in this because he ran into the Kentucky player in the Kentucky bench area," Shields wrote in an e-mail.
In explaining why he first noted the incident on his radio show the next morning, Shields said, "I just found it humorous that the fan who got hit told me, 'It was worth it.' I never intended to put Kentucky basketball or one of its players in a bad light."
South Carolina Athletics Director Eric Hyman also defended any player put in that chaotic situation.
"Coaches need a cooling down period," he said. "Players are no different. They left everything on the court. If they're not successful, obviously, players are not in a great mood. I understand players getting upset. ... And if somebody rushes at you, yells and screams at you, that's a very volatile situation. That's what we're trying to avoid."
On Friday, Calipari saluted Cousins' restraint this season.
"The way he's being guarded and pushed and shoved and fouled, and he's keeping his cool," the UK coach said. "C'mon. You all are watching the games. The kid's beautiful. I'm loving him."
Kentucky's opening game of conference play took Mark Slonaker down memory lane.
Slonaker, a former Georgia player and then assistant coach for Hugh Durham, played for the Bulldogs when they faced UK in the first conference game in Rupp Arena.
UK beat Georgia 64-59 on Jan. 3, 1977.
Slonaker now works as a fund raiser for Georgia and also provides commentary for radio broadcasts of Bulldog games.
South Carolina's victory over No. 1 Kentucky fit a pattern. As the coaches like to note, there are not that many easy SEC victories to be had.
Of the 33 league games heading into this weekend's play, 14 were won by the visiting team. Only Georgia, Arkansas and LSU had failed to win a road game. Only Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State had undefeated home records (and five of those six victories came by less than 10-point margins, the exception being UK's rout of Arkansas).
More than two-thirds of league games (24 of 33) had been decided by 10 or fewer points.
As Tennessee Coach Bruce Pearl said a week into the SEC schedule, "It says that the league is going to be awfully competitive."
SEC Associate Commissioner Mark Whitworth noted that the league insisted on only one restriction on ESPN's request for games on Thursday night: No team would be required to play on the road on Thursday and again on the road on Saturday.
For all Patrick Patterson has meant to UK basketball, that didn't prevent critical comments from being posted on his Facebook page after the Cats lost at South Carolina.
That seemingly made fans look spoiled, short-sighted and ungrateful. But fan Mike Ballard (UK Class of '70) offered another possibility.
"Tell him to keep in mind those comments may not have come from UK fans," Ballard wrote in an e-mail. "It wouldn't surprise me if they weren't UT or U of L fans trying to get him upset so he'll force things in his next game. I've learned to be very careful about what you read on those types of sites."
Ballard, 62, grew up in Covington. He graduated from UK with a degree in Chemical Engineering and took a job in Kingsport, Tenn. He retired in December 2008 and does consultant work for the same company.
"I feel like a missionary down here in Tennessee trying to convert these folks to real basketball!" he wrote.
To C.M. Newton. The former UK player and athletics director turns 80 on Tuesday.