Oh, it's easy to give up and say if you can't win it all, the season isn't worth playing. UK players, staff, and their fans have been frustrated watching the Wildcats spiral downhill to eight losses in their last eleven contests and some have suggested the Cats should even decline a N.I.T. bid.
UK Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart has indicated that won't happen, though, and outwardly, the Wildcat basketball team still says all the right things.
"We're still planning on making the NCAA tournament but if we don't, we told them on Friday we would play (in the NIT)," Barnhart said, according to an ESPN report. Due to a scheduling conflict with the Kentucky high school state tournament, the first game could not even be played in Rupp Arena, but would instead be played in Memorial Coliseum. Barnhart also acknowledged that it was a tough decision because at Kentucky, they didn't want to be seen as lowering their standards.
Coach Gillispie didn't even want to address it. “We are trying to make the NCAA just like everyone else," Gillispie said. "If it gets to that point, we will talk about it at the time We are trying to get into NCAA like everyone wants to play in.”
Even star players downplayed the possibility of playing in the N.I.T. “I would rather play in the NIT than not play at all,” sophomore Patrick Patterson said. “But we all hope to be in the NCAA. That’s what we came here for. I wouldn’t say I would never want to play in the NIT because that would mean more games. But the NIT is not what you want.”
It's not what you want. We're Kentucky, and we don't want to lower our standards. We don't want to talk about it. With Kentucky on the verge of missing its first NCAA tournament in 18 seasons, the adrenaline has apparently run dry for this Wildcat basketball team.
Kentucky has played basketball for more than 100 seasons, though, and sometimes--very rarely--the success the Wildcats enjoy is far less than normal. But even on those occasions, each and every victory adds to the all-time UK lead, UK's quest to be the first NCAA team in history to obtain 2,000 wins, and a long resume of winning. UK was the first team to 1,000 wins, and the race to be the first to 2,000 is so important that Dish Network has signed on as a corporate sponsor to watch the Wildcats in their endeavor to break the W2K mark. Other schools will eventually have 2,000 wins, but just only one school will be the first.
Every time that a UK team has a season that's less than ideal, I think back to the 1976 season for the Wildcats. That season the Cats opened up the season with a loss to an unheralded opponent followed by a 2nd consecutive loss to Final Four favorite North Carolina.
Come to think of it, that season started exactly like this one.
In 1976 the Cats dropped three consecutive games and stood 10-10 as the season was expiring, and there was nothing really to play for. Except Wildcat pride and the tradition known as Kentucky basketball. And that, friends, was enough.
Nobody remembers that much about the rest of the season. The Cats finished the season with six wins, most close, including an overtime win to end the season at home over an unranked Mississippi State team. At 16-10, the Cats couldn't get an NCAA bid, but took what was offered, and headed to the N.I.T.
Playing in the "not invited" tournament, as it is pejoratively known, the Cats battled four opponents in New York--and with no win of more than four points, walked away with the N.I.T. title. But perhaps more importantly, with four more wins that nobody--other than Kentucky staff, players and fans--really cared about.
Four wins. Those four wins also springboarded the Cats to a 26-4 SEC championship season, and a final AP ranking of # 3 in the country the following season, followed by the next season a 30-2, NCAA championship.
Four wins. With this year's team struggling, and North Carolina the # 1 team in the country, and a strong favorite to win the ACC tournament and NCAA tournament, UNC could conceivably win nine more games. If this year's Kentucky team decides there's nothing left to play for, and if the players--particularly the young ones--do not appreciate the Kentucky winning tradition and the fact that every game wearing the Blue and White is an important one, those four victories could be the difference in UK leading UNC as we head to the 2009-10 season.
Do freshmen, who have been on campus for less than a year, fully appreciate all that is the University of Kentucky? And it shouldn't be limited to freshmen--how about sophomores, or juniors, or even the lone Wildcat senior, Jared Carter? Will they understand that every victory, from the wins over arch-rival Tennessee to the triumps over Delaware State and Longwood, is perhaps more important at the University of Kentucky than any other school?
Freshmen like Deandre Liggins and Darius Miller may be used to more success, championships and big wins. But they have never been part of a bigger program than the University of Kentucky, and they have only one chance to be part of the only school in history to be the first program to 2,000 wins. And what will each and every win mean to the Wildcats for next season, and the season after that?
Every win is important. If this group of Wildcats fail to recognize that, they may tell their grandchildren one day how close they were to North Carolina being the first team to 2,000 wins. But if they do recognize that, and if they do realize they occupy a special, exalted place in Wildcat history--then one day, perhaps a third of a century later, some hack writer will be talking about their unsung contributions to Wildcat basketball and the part they played in the race to 2,000, or that the season was the springboard to success in 2010, 2011 and beyond at the highest of levels.
The Kentucky Wildcats regular season has concluded, and postseason play begins with the Southeastern Conference and a rematch against the Ole Miss Rebels on Thursday. Somehow that seems fitting, as the Ole Miss upset of Kentucky after a 5-0 SEC start sent the Wildcats spiraling downward to this point.
Will the Wildcats appreciate what they have, and play with no regrets toward their place in UK history? Or will they decide there's nothing really to play for, and just play out the string?
We'll know Thursday, beginning with a 1:00 p.m. tipoff in Tampa. It's not too late to cement a place in Kentucky history. UK fans can only hope the team realizes that, too.