Mark Story

The 10 hardest things about being a Kentucky Wildcats fan

Kentucky fans ride the emotional roller coaster of an Elite Eight loss

Kentucky fans react to the UK-Auburn game going to overtime and then the Wildcats losing to the Tigers in the Elite Eight of the 2019 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament.
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Kentucky fans react to the UK-Auburn game going to overtime and then the Wildcats losing to the Tigers in the Elite Eight of the 2019 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament.

Suffering is a major part of the experience of being a sports fan.

Backers of literally every team in any sport at any level have a litany of painful defeats, unconquerable rivals or hexes and curses that inject misery into their lives.

For a fan base as large and passionate as Kentucky Wildcats backers, setbacks suffered by the Cats cut deeply.

Here is one opinion of the 10 hardest things that come with swearing allegiance to the Big Blue Nation:

10. All those crazy football losses. It’s hard to imagine any fan base has ever suffered through more bizarro, rip-your-heart-out football defeats than UK backers. The “uncovered receivers” loss to Florida in 2017. The “Bluegrass Miracle” defeat vs. LSU in 2007. The “failure to cover the post pattern” loss to Florida in 1993.

Those are just three off a lengthy list.

Dejected UK fan
A dejected fan sat in the stands after Kentucky’s come-from-ahead 28-27 loss to Florida in 2017. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

9. Lack of championship breakthroughs. Since Mitch Barnhart’s arrival as UK athletics director in 2002, Kentucky has built a powerful all-around sports program. UK is presently 13th in the 2018-19 Directors’ Cup standings (which measures all-around athletics success). In the five prior years, Kentucky finished 17th, 10th, 26th, 22nd and 11th in the Directors’ Cup.

Yet for all its all-around sports strength, UK has produced precious-few championship “breakthroughs.” Since 2002, Kentucky has only three NCAA team national championships — two in rifle (2011 and 2018) and one in men’s basketball (2012).

Kentucky rifle celebration
The Kentucky Wildcats rifle team celebrated the school’s second national championship in the sport after winning the NCAA title in 2018. Milledge Austin The Citadel

8. Wisconsin, 2015. Kentucky entered the 2015 men’s hoops Final Four against Wisconsin two victories from an undefeated national title. John Calipari’s Wildcats entered the game’s final eight minutes with a 60-56 lead — only to see the dreams of a perfect season slip away amidst ill-timed offensive stagnation that included not one, not two, but three late-game shot-clock violations.

It was the kind of loss that leaves psychic scars on a fan base.

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Wisconsin ended Kentucky’s dreams of a 40-0, NCAA title with a 71-64 victory over the Wildcats and guard Aaron Harrison, seated, in the 2015 Final Four. Mark Cornelison File photo

7. Free throw torment. At NCAA Tournament time, a constant in Kentucky tourney defeats has been free-throw struggles.

In 2010, UK missed 13 foul shots in an Elite Eight loss to West Virginia. Kentucky misfired on eight free throws in a one-point defeat vs. Connecticut in the Final Four the following season. The Cats missed 11 foul shots in a six-point loss to UConn in the 2014 NCAA finals.

While falling by three to Kansas State in the 2018 round of 16, UK was errant on 14 foul shots. In this season’s six-point, overtime defeat vs. Auburn in the round of eight, Kentucky missed nine free throws.

UK backers cannot be blamed if they feel they are trapped in a basketball version of the movie “Groundhog Day.”

PJ Washington
Kentucky forward PJ Washington scored 18 points and grabbed 15 rebounds in UK’s 61-58 loss to Kansas State in the 2018 NCAA Tournament round of 16. However, Washington missed 12 of 20 free-throw attempts in the game. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

6. One-and-done fatigue. If you relish following recruiting and glory in the annually large presence of Kentucky Wildcats players in the NBA Draft green room, the current era of UK basketball — with its ever-churning roster — has been nirvana for you.

However, if your enjoyment of college basketball is based on watching players mature and enjoying the development of teams over years, the UK program since 2009-10 — with its 25 one-and-done players selected in the NBA Draft — must be exhausting.

Tyler Herro with Adam Silver.JPG
Kentucky’ freshman Tyler Herro shook hands with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver after being selected No. 13 overall in the 2019 NBA Draft by the Miami Heat. Julio Cortez AP

5. All the losing to Florida in football. Before Mark Stoops, Terry Wilson and Co. engineered last season’s 27-16 road upset of No. 25 Florida, UK had lost 31 straight football games against the Gators.

No fan base should have to endure that many consecutive losses versus an intra-conference opponent.

Drew Barker.jpg
Drew Barker was hardly the only Kentucky quarterback tormented by Florida defenses during the Gators’ 31-game win streak vs. the Wildcats. Charles Bertram File photo

4. Duke. UK fans take special pride in the Wildcats men’s basketball program being recognized as the nation’s best. Since Mike Krzyzewski became Duke head coach in 1980, the Blue Devils have played in 12 Final Fours and won five NCAA titles to UK’s nine Final Fours and three national championships over the same period.

Coach K2
Mike Krzyzewski is 6-2 vs. Kentucky as Duke head coach. Gerry Broome Associated Press

3. Laettner. For many Kentucky fans, Christian Laettner’s famous buzzer beater that gave Duke a 104-103 win over UK in the 1992 NCAA Tournament round of eight and ended the careers of the beloved Wildcats’ senior class known as The Unforgettables is the most painful single moment of their UK fandom.

That pain has been sustained across the decades by the constant re-running during March Madness telecasts of Laettner’s dagger straight into Kentucky hearts.

Christian Laettner after hitting shot vs UK.JPG
Duke’s Christian Laettner celebrated after hitting the shot that gave the Blue Devils a 104-103 overtime victory over Kentucky in the 1992 NCAA Tournament East Region finals. Janet Worne Herald-Leader file photo

2. Elite Eights. The NCAA Tournament round of eight has long been where Kentucky basketball dreams go to die. Counting this past season’s overtime defeat to Auburn in the Midwest Region finals, UK is now 17-21 in Elite Eight contests.

UK after losing to Auburn
In a dejected Kentucky locker room, UK freshmen Ashton Hagans, left, and Keldon Johnson reflected on the Cats’ season-ending 77-71 loss to Auburn. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

1. All the losing to Tennessee in football. From 1952 through 1964, Kentucky went 8-3-2 against Tennessee in football.

In all the years since, UK is 6-48 in football games against the Rocky Toppers.

That head-to-head football futility has been made even more frustrating for Cats fans in the past decade by the fact Tennessee has had more losing seasons than Kentucky (seven to six) since 2008 and played in fewer bowls than UK (seven for the Vols, eight for the Cats) since 2006.

The dearth of football success against Tennessee has long been the most grating part of the Kentucky fan experience.

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Former Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs directed the Volunteers to four-straight wins over Kentucky (2013-16). Jonathan Palmer

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Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a Herald-Leader sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.
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