John Clay

Cats make giant leap in one year

John Clay
John Clay

One year ago, Kentucky basketball was a mess.

On March 7, 2009, the head coach was well on his way to being an ex sent back to Texas. His players were hanging on for dear life in a serious storm. The Cats had just lost to lowly Georgia on Senior Night. Rock bottom. They were headed to Florida for the regular-season finale. They would lose there, too.

One year later, the Cats are back home.

In more ways than one.

On March 7, 2010, the new head coach is being mentioned for national honors. His star-studded array of players has given the program new life. The Cats have just ridden a second-half surge to whip Georgia in Athens. Now they close a remarkable regular season against Florida at Rupp Arena. A win is expected there, too.

It's Senior Day. A college career closes for at least three UK players (Mark Krebs, Ramon Harris and Perry Stevenson) and possibly a few non-seniors, including Patrick Patterson, a soon-to-be three-year graduate who has decided to participate in the annual ceremonies. He'll join those popping through that paper hoop.

It's also a day to celebrate a season of rebirth, as well, one in which the program with the "greatest tradition in the history of college basketball," to repeat a phrase, has returned to the place where its passionate fan base believes it should be all along.

This date a year ago Kentucky was 19-11, with more losses coming. It was 8-7 in the SEC. There would be no Selection Sunday party in its future. It was NIT-bound.

This date, Kentucky is 28-2. It is 13-2 in the SEC. It is ranked No. 3 in both polls. Without an unforeseen series of stumbles, it is a lock for one of the four coveted No. 1 regional seeds come Selection Sunday. That's next Sunday, by the way.

None of that is foreign to Kentucky basketball. Such heights have been attained here before. Mind-boggling is the speed at which it happened, however, even in this one-and-done day and age. John Calipari presented not a five-year plan, but a five-month plan. From a span of November to March, he has taken a fallen program from near-bottom to near-top.

John Wall is a reason. So is DeMarcus Cousins. Eric Bledsoe. Darnell Dodson. Daniel Orton. All bold, new blood. While tradition is important, there is no substitute for pure, gleaming, unmistakable talent.

A little fortitude doesn't hurt either, however. It was interesting Friday afternoon, when the Senior Day participants met the media, hearing Harris, Stevenson, Krebs and Patterson talk about their experiences. The good, the bad and the ugly.

"The battles on and off the court," Patterson said.

A year ago, Harris and Stevenson were both starters and significant contributors. This year, they are bench players whose individual minutes on the floor rarely reach double digits. They have played for three coaches in four years. Yet neither seemed regretful about how their final collegiate year has played out.

"It hasn't been that hard because of the success of the team," Harris said.

"Being a starter ended up in the NIT," Stevenson pointed out. "I'm coming off the bench now, for No. 3, No. 4 in the country, and playing for a No. 1 seed in the tournament. So I don't have a problem changing roles. It was for the better."

As for its beloved program, Kentucky basketball fans would agree. Winning cures all ills. From one March 7 to the next, the roles and the results have changed. For the better.