I had never been to Las Vegas.
I have still never been to Las Vegas, but Saturday I did see quite a show.
Here’s the deal: Friday, I was on my way to Sin City, flying United Airlines out of Cincinnati/Covington with a connection in Denver, scheduled to arrive in plenty of time to cover the Kentucky-North Carolina basketball game in the CBS Sports Classic on Saturday.
Mother Nature had other ideas, however. And you don’t argue with Mother Nature. A late Rocky Mountain snow brought the Denver International Airport to a standstill. I spent two hours in a plane trying to wait out the snow on the tarmac, before it was forced back to the gate into cancellation. That was followed by five hours in a slow-moving customer service line waiting for my flight to be re-booked only to be told, at 4 a.m. Mountain Time, there was no way I was making it to Las Vegas, not in time for UK-UNC, anyway.
It’s happened before. My disappointment paled in comparison the mother ahead of me in line who was to take a connecting flight in Las Vegas to see her son’s graduation in Hawaii. He would have to graduate without her. There was also the young baseball player behind me who was headed to Nevada to see his best friend, a linebacker at San Diego State, play in the Las Vegas Bowl. Instead, he was headed back to St. Louis.
After a return flight to Cincinnati was canceled late Saturday morning, I was lucky enough to end up in a warm room with a comfortable bed at the Courtyard Hotel, six miles from the airport, where at least I got a chance to watch a piece of history on television.
Sure, I would have much rather been at T-Mobile Arena in person, not just to witness but absorb the feel of Malik Monk’s monster 47-point game and Kentucky’s epic 103-100 win over North Carolina. Especially as regular season affairs go, it was one that will be remembered, and not for just Monk’s historic scoring feat.
Kentucky and North Carolina played basketball Saturday the way basketball should be played. Up and down. Run and gun. Both teams pushed the tempo. Both teams made ridiculously athletic plays. Both teams refused to give in to the other, not for long anyway.
“If you just tuned in,” CBS play-by-play man Brad Nessler said at one point, “shame on you.”
There’s recent talk that the quality of college basketball is making a comeback. I credit the adoption of the 30-second shot clock, which has put a premium on actually playing the game. I also credit the coaches, many of whom have taken John Calipari’s lead and accepted the reality that you can survive and thrive with younger players. In a sport often dominated by coaches, it’s more of a player’s game now.
Kentucky’s Calipari and North Carolina’s Roy Williams both don’t just let their guys play, they encourage them to play. Whether it was North Carolina’s Justin Jackson (34 points) and Joel Berry (23 points, seven assists) or UK’s Monk (18-for-28 from the floor) and De’Aaron Fox (24 points, 10 assists) great players made great plays, just the way it’s supposed to be.
Yes, I’m sorry I wasn’t in the building for Saturday’s spectacular hoops show on The Strip. But even in a lonely hotel room, for a person who hadn’t slept in 36 hours, it was pretty good on television, too.
Kentucky men’s basketball 2016-17
Stephen F. Austin