LEXINGTON, Ky. – The tone of the day in the commonwealth of Kentucky was set early Wednesday.
WKRD-AM, a Cardinal-friendly sports talk radio station in Louisville, put out a call to the listenership. If there is a Robert Morris in the area, we want to meet you.
Next thing you know, a Mr. Robert Morris from across the Ohio River in New Albany, Ind., was in the studio and on the air. He collected coupons for a couple of free pizzas and was generally treated like a returning war hero.
Morris’ namesake, of course, is the Pennsylvania university that put Kentucky out of its misery Tuesday night in the first round of the NIT. For Louisville fans, that was the “finish him!” moment of the annual mortal combat basketball duel between Big Blue Nation and Planet Red.
A year removed from winning the national title and appearing to be an unstoppable force in perpetuity, the Wildcats have been laid as low as at any moment in the last 24 years – since the big NCAA probation hit of 1989. As recently as late last week, Kentucky believed it would be in the NCAA field of 68. Then it lost in brutal fashion to Vanderbilt on Friday, was snubbed by the selection committee Sunday, and had its dismal season end with a surreal court storm in a bandbox gym Tuesday.
Louisville, meanwhile, finds itself riding its biggest high in the last 27 years – since the national title of 1986. On Saturday, the Cardinals capped a blazing run by winning the Big East tournament. On Sunday, they were bestowed the NCAA tournament’s overall No. 1 seed. And in delicious irony, Rick Pitino’s Cards were dispatched to start their title chase in Lexington and Rupp Arena – homecourt of the fallen 'Cats, and a gym where Pitino has a banner bearing his name in the rafters.
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So while there was gleeful sack dancing in the island republic of Louisville – the biggest city in the state, and also perhaps the only one of its 120 counties where the Cardinals fans are the majority – the mood was far different in Lexington on Wednesday. Top-seeded Louisville came to town and practiced in front of a few hundred red-and-black-clad fans Wednesday afternoon, while Kentucky fans who annually save up money and vacation days for the tournament had no place to go, no games to enjoy, no March hopes to harbor.
It was in the midst of this staggering twist of intertwined fates that I found Oscar Combs, the old-school oracle of Kentucky fandom, courtside at Rupp Arena.
Oscar is a native of Jeff, Ky., a tiny hamlet deep in the coal-rich mountains of Appalachian Eastern Kentucky. He has the twang to match.
But anyone appraising him as a hillbilly bumpkin would be severely understimating the man. In 1976, he founded the very first school-specific fan publication, The Cats’ Pause, progenitor of a massive industry that thrives today. Oscar may have more money buried in coffee cans in the hills of Perry County than most of us will make in a lifetime.
So Oscar seemed like the man to ask about the remarkable confluence of events happening here in Rupp Arena, and in the blue bubble that surrounds it. The question: what is the big takeaway from this season for Kentucky fans?
“Humility,” he said, then paused.
“Nothing lasts forever.”
He remembers that shortly after launching his fan magazine, Kentucky went 10-1 in football and then won the national title in basketball the following spring.
“I thought I’d died and gone to hillbilly basketball heaven,” Oscar recalled.
But that title was followed by a fall to the NIT the following season – just like 2012-13. Oscar also remembers the Rick Pitino-Tubby Smith run of 1996-98 that produced two national titles and a runner-up finish, but then flattened out and led to widespread fan dissatisfaction with Smith. And he remembers Louisville’s last NCAA visit to Rupp, in 2007, and the chain-reaction of events that followed.
In what at the time was a full-on Pitino psychodrama, the Cardinals beat Stanford in the first round and then lost to Texas A&M, coached by Billy Gillispie. Roughly a week later, Smith unexpectedly resigned at Kentucky and fled to Minnesota.
With a sudden opening, word started to percolate that Memphis coach John Calipari would walk to Lexington for the job. But concerns about Cal’s checkered NCAA past made him a non-option. The Wildcats went after Billy Donovan and Rick Barnes, but after whiffing on both decided to hire Gillispie.
“Someone told me later on that Billy Gillispie was hired because he beat Louisville that night, that was a big consideration,” Pitino said in his press conference Wednesday. “They said, ‘One hundred percent positive I got it from a reliable source.’ That’s ridiculous. I didn’t believe it, but I was told later on it was very reliable.”
[AccuScore computer projections: Midwest | West | South | East | Field of 68]
Gillispie, of course, turned out to be an epically bad hire, and Calipari was suddenly much more palatable after two very poor seasons.
The rest is one-and-done, national-championship history. Calipari has been a recruiting machine, piling up talent and victories at a rate unseen here since Pitino was the coach. Along the way the two Italian-American alpha males have taken shots at each other, through the media and on the recruiting trail, and there is zero love lost between them.
It’s even worse between the fans.
But the players, not so much. Most are not from the state and were not raised with the rivalry. They don’t get the depth of feeling that exists outside their world.
“Everyone doesn’t have a good year,” Louisville forward Chane Behanan said. “Coach Cal is a good coach. I’m pretty sure they’ll be back next year. I’m sure the Kentucky entourage believes in him.”
Belief was strengthened Wednesday afternoon. While talking to Combs, a blue-jacketed Rupp Arena usher showed his phone to Oscar and said, “It’s Kentucky.”
Julius Randle, Rivals.com’s No. 2 recruit in the nation, had just chosen the Wildcats over Kansas. That gave Kentucky six of the Rivals' top 18 recruits, a preposterous haul unlike any in the sketchy history of recruiting rankings. (Caveat emptor: Alex Poythress, one of the major whipping boys for Kentucky fans this past season, was ranked No. 8 last season and heralded as an instant star.)
The massive recruiting bounty for next year and the long-anticipated national title the previous year make for sturdy bookends on both sides of this plague year in Kentucky basketball.
“The fact that they won it last year makes it a little easier,” Combs said. “Now, if they were to go two games (in the NCAA tourney) and out next year, that’s a different story.”
Nothing lasts forever, but it can seem like it when you’re in the middle of it. We’ll see how Kentucky fans handle the small eternity of Louisville’s takeover of Rupp, and the rest of the tournament that follows.
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