I started a series about college basketball programs most on track to be powers over the next five years and you started asking questions, almost immediately. So let's address some of them now.
You: Why North Carolina at No. 4?
|With Billy Gillispie aboard, are things looking up for Kentucky? Darn right they are. (US Presswire)|
You: Are there really three programs better positioned than UNC?
Me: Fair question. If you want to know the truth, I believe there's a clear-cut No. 1 (we'll get to that June 1, remember) and the schools I have two through four could be argued in any order. Reasonable men could differ in opinion. But I went with UNC at No. 4, and once we get through the entire list I'll be happy to defend my position.
You: Why are you stretching this out over four weeks, over four Fridays?
Me: Because it adds to the suspense, the buildup and makes it more interesting.
You: Is that really the reason?
Me: No. Honestly, it just helps burn vacation days. Even college basketball writers get vacation days, and it's better to take them in May and June than in July (because of recruiting). So I'm currently relaxing a bit, though I'll be back writing regularly next week.
You: That's the best news I've ever heard. I can't wait, Gary.
Me: It's my pleasure. I can't wait either. But until then let's continue our list of programs best positioned to be powers over the next five years with No. 3 ...
The case for the Wildcats: Similar to North Carolina, UK has the tradition, facilities and fan base to compete with anybody. That has been obvious for decades. But in addition to those qualities, two developments from the past month have the Wildcats set to return to prominence, specifically the hiring of Billy Gillispie and the administration's willingness to give him anything necessary to succeed. And by anything, I mean anything, including a private plane. Yes, UK is considering buying a private plane to aid Gillispie in recruiting while ensuring he never steps foot on a commercial jet again. It's a bold move for an athletic department that -- unlike Florida, Tennessee and Alabama -- isn't carried by football. And it's proof that Gillispie will have nobody but himself to blame if he doesn't soon have Kentucky competing for Final Fours.
The best attribute: The best thing going for Kentucky is also the worst, i.e., the fans. Quick story: Back in 1995 Kentucky played Ole Miss at The Pyramid in downtown Memphis. It was a midweek, non-descript league game, and somehow Kentucky fans filled the 20,000-seat arena despite UK being about a six-hour drive from Memphis, a city featuring many thousands of Ole Miss alumni. I was 17 and in the building, and that's probably the first time I realized there is something different about Kentucky fans. If you're wondering, the most recent time I realized there is something different about Kentucky fans came Wednesday when the school signed Patrick Patterson and more than 11,000 people gathered on a Wildcats message board to cry tears of joy, according to the following post: I could not even watch the presser live. I actually thought I would crap myself when I starting (sic) reading you (sic) guys' posts. To be truthful, man to man, the news brought tears to my eyes.
Touching, huh? That a high school kid's college decision could make someone cry (not to mention nearly "crap" himself") is both impressive and terrifying. But either way, the point is the same: When things are going well, no fan base is more positively passionate about its program than Kentucky's fan base, meaning Gillispie's recruiting, coaching skills and unique work ethic will be appreciated so much that when he gets the Wildcats at the level I believe he'll get them to, this rabid bunch of supporters will be crapping itself on a regular basis. Or something.
The final word: Truth is, Kentucky basketball will never again be what Kentucky fans think it should be, which is SEC champion and Final Four contender every year. There are too many colleges paying coaches big salaries, too many good players spread around the nation and too many early departures by talented underclassmen for that to happen. The world has changed. So for the same reasons John Wooden wouldn't win all those national titles if he was coaching in this era, Kentucky fans can't reasonably expect to have a Top 10 team that advances to the Sweet 16 every season, given how no school has appeared in each of the past three Sweet 16s (only Florida, Georgetown, Memphis and UCLA have been to the past two). Plus, Billy Donovan and Bruce Pearl simply won't allow it. That's the bad news.
The good news: Kentucky fans can expect to have one of the elite programs in the nation going forward, as well they should. With Gillispie in place under an administration committed to doing whatever necessary to win big, Kentucky will be winning big again soon. So my best advice is to grab some toilet paper and get ready.