With how rabidly Kentucky fans follow their favorite basketball team comes an urge to measure that level of interest. Coach John Calipari last week said UK fans would go to the ends of the Earth to see the Cats play. OK, to be precise, he said fans would go to Sioux City, which surely is near the end of the Earth. When UK last played in the Great Alaska Shootout, some fans drove — yes, drove — to Anchorage (turn left at the Yukon Territories).
Calipari likened Kentucky fans to piranha, albeit warm-hearted flesh eaters.
People of a certain age remember Beatlemania in the 1960s, when John, Paul, George and Ringo revolutionized clothing, haircuts, attitudes and, oh yeah-yeah-yeah, rock and roll.
In terms of mania, does UK basketball compare to or surpass the Beatles?
Oliver Leaman, a professor of religion at UK, can take a stab at answering that question. He grew up in England, and for 20 years taught at Liverpool's Salvation Army Orphanage. "Just a few feet from Strawberry Fields," he said last week.
Laettner, Smaettner. You want to talk historical events? Leaman was in London when the Beatles played their last concert, an informal performance on the rooftop of Abbey Road studios. On a blustery Jan. 30, 1969, he was working in an office "around the corner." Beatles' music suddenly filled the air.
"An amazing performance," he said. "It was a magical event. It was wonderful because you didn't expect it to happen. A very boring day in the office became completely transformed."
Leaman recalled office workers going into the street. They recognized the songs and the musicians playing.
"A transformative experience," he said.
As for comparing UK fan interest with Beatlemania, Leaman wrote in an email, "Enthusiasm for a sports team is so irrational since it is not based on their success but often becomes even more passionate when they carry on losing. Beatlemania was to an extent based on the music.
"And it surely represented at the time the emergence for the first time on the social scene of the teenager as more than just a young adult. We had carved out a separate territory for ourselves, and the Beatles sort of represented that with the hair and the clothes, the sense that this was something new. Hence the enthusiasm."
By contrast, Kentucky basketball represents and promotes tradition and permanence.
As loud as UK fans cheer, no one screams in pure delight, sheds tears of joy nor faints.
Judging by the reaction to two free-thinking voters for The Associated Press All-American team, some UK fans need to work harder to fulfill Coach John Calipari's request to resist negative thinking. Rooting against other teams and wishing others ill risks a dose of karma payback on the Cats, he said.
Some fans didn't get the message. They heaped abuse on sportswriters Scott Mansch and Scott Reid because they did not vote for Anthony Davis on the first team. That prevented Davis from joining Kansas forward Thomas Robinson as a unanimous selection.
Mansch, the sports editor for the Great Falls (Mont.) Tribune, voted for Davis on the second team. That decision generated "a lot of correspondence," he said with dry understatement.
In a column last week, Mansch shared some of the comments from UK fans he received. For instance, "Wildcat Anne" told him, "Did you have your head buried in a pile of buffalo dung the entire season?"
Points to Anne for the home-on-the-range reference.
Another fan not only ignored Calipari's warning about karma, but told Mansch to steer clear of Kentucky in the future. "You owe the world an explanation," the fan wrote. "... I wouldn't bother requesting media creds to a UK event. ... Big Blue Nation doesn't forget writers with biases."
Mansch did explain his vote for first team: Draymond Green of Michigan State, Jared Sullinger of Ohio State, Isaiah Canaan of Murray State, Marcus Denmon of Missouri and Robinson. He said he wanted five players that could take the floor as a team (three front liners, two guards).
Agree or disagree, Mansch said that Robinson was more productive than Davis and played in a better league. Green and Sullinger were the two best players in the best league, he said.
Reid, who works for the Orange County Register and once covered Georgia, also wrote about his vote.
"Many Cat People have ... asked if I've actually seen Kentucky play," he wrote. "Yes, I have many times. Others have suggested a lack of knowledge of the game. To be honest, this group might actually have a point. When you cover an almost mid-major conference like the Pac-12, or the Mountain Lite as I like to call it, you have a tendency to forget what real basketball looks like."
Reid, too, tried to vote for five players who could form a team, not necessarily the five best players.
His first-team ballot had Denmon, Green, Tyler Zeller of North Carolina, Robinson and Kevin Jones of West Virginia.
"If I have a second thought about my ballot, it's not putting a second guard on the first team," he wrote.
Reid saw Green and Robinson as the best two players in the country. He called Zeller the player of the year in what Reid considered the best conference in the country in the long-term view.
"So it came down between Jones and Davis for the final spot on the first team," he wrote. "If there was a bias in the vote it wasn't anti-Kentucky or anti-Calipari but a belief that the Big East is a much tougher conference than the SEC. It's just not even close."
Reid also cited Jones' better statistics against marquee opponents, including "the monster game" against Baylor: 28 points and 17 boards.
"Davis had only seven points against North Carolina, only six against Indiana and he didn't have a field goal in the final 18:03 of an SEC title game loss to Vanderbilt," Reid wrote. "So, there you have it. Best of luck, Kentucky, this weekend at the Final Four. I'll be at home re-watching Glory Road in my retro Laettner jersey."
UK vs. U.K.
College sports are rooted only in the U.S. The concept is literally and figuratively foreign to those in the United Kingdom.
"There's nothing like it in Europe," UK professor Oliver Leaman said. "Ordinary people don't feel an attachment to the university."
In Europe, the university is an elitist entity cut off from everyday life.
"In England, if you tell people you come from the University of X, they shrug their shoulders," he said. "They never heard of it.
"At Kentucky, they'll have something immediate to say."
Leaman noted one trait seemingly shared everywhere by fans: a long-lasting attachment to their favorite teams.
"There's a saying in England, in life, everything changes," he said. "Your job. Your religion. Your wife or husband. Style of clothes. The thing that never changes is the football (soccer) team you support.
"That's true in America, too."
A series of UK presidents have noted how athletics aid the school's academic pursuits. Current president Eli Capilouto spoke recently of the synergy between UK athletics and academia.
Louisville native Dennis Berman, who now heads business coverage for The Wall Street Journal, wrote a column last week about how he found the UK team difficult to embrace.
"Their games, produced with few blemishes, feel like a business transaction," he wrote.
Berman suggested that UK's success, which is based on so-called one-and-done players, does not satisfy the fans as fully as, say, the Kentucky teams of the early 1990s.
"... If you were to ask them their favorite team, they would reflexively bring up the 'Unforgettables,' the ragtag group of Rick Pitino- coached overachievers who infamously fell to Duke's Christian Laettner 20 years ago," he wrote. "Two decades on, Pitino is now at Louisville, doing the same thing with a new bunch of overachievers.
"Louisville fans now know where the real joy lies — the joy of the struggle. And that's why I can't help but feel sorry for Kentucky fans. This season, they only know that pinch of relief, the joylessness of entitlement."
In a telephone interview, Berman said he grew up a Louisville fan. His father, an uncle and an aunt all attended U of L. He played middle school basketball with DeJuan Wheat.
Of UK basketball as business transaction, Berman said, "They're so talented and so good, you don't necessarily see them faltering."
For Berman, a human dimension gets lost and what he called a sense of "commercialization" gets heightened.
His column generated feedback. "Every person in Louisville I grew up with sent me an email," he said. "I got a few anger-filled emails. Also a number of very nice responses. Kentucky fans appreciate part of it."
'One and done'
On his weekly commentary for National Public Radio, sportswriter Frank Deford suggested that the NCAA Tournament looks more and more like a TV show. In this guise, the so-called one-and-done players rob the TV show of its most recognizable faces.
"March Madness is at its greatest disadvantage now because you don't get to know the characters," Deford said. "The brightest stars leave for the NBA after a year — 'one and done' — just when they're beginning to attract interest.
"There's so little identity or continuity, and basketball is the most personality-driven team sport. It's especially revealing that the biggest fuss made about March Madness is about the brackets. And essentially, filling out a 68-team bracket has as much to do with sport as does buying a lottery ticket.
"It's representative of the whole situation that, for the Final Four, Kentucky is the huge favorite — because the Wildcats are a transient team made up mostly of freshmen who'll be gone next year, off to the NBA.
"Can we really say that the 'C' in NCAA stands for 'Collegiate,' if virtually a whole team doesn't spend much time in college? Let us say that, more correctly, the NCAA is now the National CBS Athletic Association."
During the annual state-of-the-NCAA news conference, NCAA President Mark Emmert expressed his wish that the one-and-done possibility did not exist.
"I've made no secret of the fact that I would prefer to have a different model," he said. "I think most people would prefer to have a model that keeps young men and women in college as long as you can. That's to their advantage over the long run, we believe. It would be nice if that were the case."
Missouri's Frank Haith, The Associated Press National Coach of the Year, noted a thin bench and the Big 12 Tournament as factors in his team's first-round loss to Norfolk State. Missouri had won three games in three days at the Big 12 Tournament.
UK Coach John Calipari makes no secret of his dislike of conference tournaments. Despite this year's experience, Haith supported the playing of conference tournaments. If for no other reason, the events help get teams off what he called the "Joe Lunardi bubble."
So, Haith said, "There's a need for it because it's a positive."
To former UK point guard Sean Woods. He turned 42 on Thursday. ... To former UK assistant Ralph Willard. He turned 66 on Thursday. ... To former UK player Johnathan Davis. He turned 43 on Friday. ... To former UK football coach Hal Mumme. He turned 60 on Thursday. ... To former UK player DeAndre Liggins. He turned 24 on Saturday. ... To walk-on Brian Long. He turns 20 on Monday. ... To former UK player Chris Gettelfinger. He turns 54 today.