With Auld Lang Syne straight ahead, it's time to reflect on 2014. To sum it up in a word: Unbelievable.
Arguably, the greatest profession of faith in Kentucky basketball history occurred in 2014. After lowly South Carolina upset Kentucky and all seemed lost on March 1, Aaron Harrison dared to say, "We know what we can do. It's going to be a great story."
Huh? The Kentucky media corps was too stunned to snicker.
Then Harrison walked the walk, as they say, and made (an unprecedented?) three straight winning shots in the NCAA Tournament. Greatest display of clutch shooting in UK history?
This calendar year saw other great highs (the blitzing of Kansas and UCLA in November and December, respectively), the truly historic (the defeat of previously unbeaten Wichita State in the NCAA Tournament), demoralizing downers (Michael Qualls' put-back dunk at Arkansas), heart-tugging poignancy (Alex Poythress's torn anterior cruciate ligament), the bizarre (ice storm at Baton Rouge), the truly shocking (any dinner check at The Atlantis Resort in the Bahamas) and, to borrow from Jack Buck, the-I-can't-believe-what-I-just-saw (ESPNU's telecast of UK's NBA Combine).
Kentucky's loss at South Carolina began a rags-to-riches story that cannot be matched (with the possible exception of UK's comeback from 31 points down at LSU in 1994, the so-called Mardi Gras Miracle). The Columbia collapse saw Kentucky make only 26.9 percent of its shots (lowest in John Calipari's six seasons as coach).
Worse, UK coaches lost their poise. Calipari got ejected after two technical fouls, which sandwiched one against assistant Orlando Antigua.
South Carolina, which finished 13th in the SEC standings, hadn't beaten a ranked opponent in more than three years.
The bright future that only Harrison saw came into focus when Kentucky beat No. 1 seed Wichita State in St. Louis. Both teams played like champions, but Kentucky won when Fred VanVleet's last-second shot bounced off the rim.
"There was no magic shot at the end with (Christian) Laettner," said Wichita State Coach Gregg Marshall, evoking the name that shall not be spoken in Kentucky, "and (John) Pelphrey defending it and all that.
"But it had the makings of it."
With nine McDonald's All-Americans, plus Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky seemed well-equipped to dominate the 2014-15 season.
But, first, the only-at-Kentucky NBA Combine, which ESPNU televised with hopelessly-devoted-to-UK ardor. "How awesome are you? They're televising your practice," one ESPNer said by way of introducing the telecast.
The loss at South Carolina, which happened barely seven months earlier, seemed like ancient history.
The great story continues ...
UK vs. U of L
Rex Chapman, Kentucky basketball's boy king in the late 1980s, grew up a Louisville fan. "Probably because most people liked Kentucky," he said with a laugh.
Chapman also liked the style Denny Crum's teams played.
The focus of the Bluegrass State's most celebrated recruiting saga of the past 30 years, Chapman had "pretty much committed" to U of L. Then the phone rang in his Owensboro home shortly after Joe B. Hall retired as UK coach in 1985.
"I answered the phone," Chapman said. "Normally, I wouldn't have done that. But my folks weren't home."
UK Athletic Director Cliff Hagan was calling.
"If we hire Lute Olson or Eddie Sutton, would you come for a visit?" Hagan asked Chapman.
"I wanted to tell him no," Chapman said. "But I didn't have the courage to."
When his father, Wayne Chapman, came home, Rex told him about agreeing to a visit. Wayne told Rex he would have to tell Crum first thing the next morning.
Chapman called the Louisville coach and told him about agreeing to a visit.
"He said, 'You know what, Rex? You need to do that,'" Chapman said. "It made me like him that much more."
Chapman visited UK one weekend and U of L the next. Of course, ultimately, he chose Kentucky.
When asked what changed his mind, Chapman noted UK's facilities: The Wildcat Lodge, Rupp Arena, Memorial Coliseum.
"All the things that shouldn't have mattered, but did to a 17-year-old," he said.
Of course, Chapman had to make another call to Crum.
"It went just fine," he said. "He was classy the whole way."
Chapman starred as a freshman in the Big Brother-Little Brother UK-U of L game of 1986. Crum and Chapman reunited the following spring as coach and player for the U.S. team in the 1987 Pan Am Games.
"He was always really classy," Chapman said of Crum.
The German word "schadenfreude" literally translates as "harm-joy." It means the feeling of joy or pleasure derived from seeing another fail or suffer misfortune.
Schadenfreude comes to mind with the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry or when UK fans erupt in applause as, say, Duke loses in the NCAA Tournament.
"I guess it all goes back to jealousy," former UK player Cameron Mills said when asked specifically about UK-U of L. "We want you to lose every game. We want your program to fold. We want an investigation by the NCAA.
"I don't know if it's a majority of fans. But it's a vocal minority."
Conventional wisdom holds that UK agreed to begin a series with U of L in 1983 only after the state Legislature threatened to pass a law mandating such a game every season. That might be overstating what happened, Kentucky journalism Hall of Famer Billy Reed said.
Reed, while a columnist for The Courier-Journal, advocated a UK-U of L series.
"There was some (legislative) committee that held hearings," he said. "I know because I testified.
"But I don't think there ever was a serious attempt to pass a bill. Jefferson County legislators wanted to make a statement that would be appealing to their constituents."
Former UK player Cameron Mills judges referees by more than the quality or quantity of the calls.
"The best officials do more talking with their mouths than with their whistles," he said. "You want to have an open, running dialogue with them."
By that standard, Mills called Curtis Shaw the best.
"My all-time favorite official," he said.
Some referees are impervious figures who only speak to the head coach and team captain. By contrast, Shaw listened to anyone.
"I was a nobody," Mills said. "He would listen with respect and courtesy if I had an issue. 'OK, Cam, I'll watch it.'"
Former UK All-American Tony Delk credited older teammates like Junior Braddy, Travis Ford and Dale Brown with teaching him how to play in Rick Pitino's pressing/trapping style. When to trap. Where to trap. Who to trap.
"By the fourth year, it's a routine," Delk said. "It's something you're used to doing each and every day. It's part of your offense and defense."
Jena McGregor writes a column for The Washington Post on leadership. On Monday, her topic was business and leadership books, "an overcrowded, underwhelming genre if there ever was one," she wrote.
With that caveat, McGregor recommended 12 books in this genre worth reading in the new year. Among the recommendations was UK Coach John Calipari's Players First: Coaching from the Inside Out.
Wrote McGregor: "John Calipari may be a controversial figure in college basketball, but it's hard to debate his success. The University of Kentucky men's basketball coach since 2009 has led his team to three Final Four appearances and won the NCAA championship in 2012. While he's drawn fire for recruiting one-and-done players, for whom Kentucky may just be a way station before the NBA, that approach to coaching has also forced him to learn how to shape raw talent and constantly re-invent his team.
"These are key lessons for any leader, and should make for a book worth reading."
Other books recommended by McGregor were:
■ Yes, And, by Kelly Leonard and Tom Yorton.
■ Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader, by Herminia Ibarra.
■ Work Rules: Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead, by Laszlo Bock.
■ A Curious Mind, by Brian Grazer and Charles Fishman.
■ Simple Rules: How to Survive in a Complex World, by Donald Sull and Kathleen Eisenhardt.
■ Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Chris Fussell, Tatum Collins, David Silverman, Elon Musk.
■ Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, by Ashlee Vance.
■ Their Own Sweet Time: How Successful Women Build Lives That Work, by Laura Vanderkam.
■ Leadership: Essential Writings by Our Greatest Thinkers, by Elizabeth D. Samet.
■ Leadership B.S.: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time, by Jeff Pfeffer.
■ Presence, by Amy Cuddy.
Get well wish
To Morehead State Coach Sean Woods. He had surgery this month to repair a torn Achilles tendon.
Woods, 44, tore the Achilles while demonstrating a play in practice on Dec. 11. No confirmation on the play in question (tomahawk dunk after a 360-degree spin? Getting up from a chair, walking onto the court and changing direction?).
To Rodney Dent. He turned 44 on Christmas Day. ... To Eloy Vargas. He turns 26 on Tuesday. ... To Travis Ford. He turns 45 on Monday. ... To Nolan Richardson. The former Arkansas coach turned 73 on Saturday. ... To Bill Self. The Kansas coach turned 52 on Saturday.