Cats will remember ‘brothers,’ season


Freshmen John Wall and Eric Bledsoe hug at the conclusion of UK’s win over Florida at Rupp Arena on Sunday, March 7, 2010. Photo by Britney McIntosh

For a season which tipped off with a dance that swept the Commonwealth and an inaugural address that reenergized the Big Blue Nation, a locker room filled with tears and mourning was not what the UK men’s basketball team (35-3, 14-2 Southeastern Conference) had in mind as the final chapter.

The Cats won their first 19 games of the season, were a part of the program’s 2,000th win, earned a No. 1 national ranking, won their 44th SEC regular season crown and their 26th SEC Tournament Championship. But after the Cats’ 73-66 loss to West Virginia in the East Regional Finals, the Cats were only left thinking about what could have been.

“It hurts, and the part that hurts the most is that we’ll never get a chance to play with each other again,” freshman forward DeMarcus Cousins said. “That’s the part that’s killing me the most right now. I’ll never be able to play with my teammates, my brothers, again.”

One year ago, the Cats were at home wondering who their next coach would be following a loss in the quarterfinals of the National Invitation Tournament. Today, they’re sitting at home following a loss in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament, but the only thing they’re wondering is what the team will look like next year with expected early departures from multiple players.

Freshman guard John Wall sat out the season opener, the second game of a two-game suspension handed down by the NCAA, but made his presence felt in his first game. With the game tied, Wall hit a 15-foot fadeaway jumper with .5 seconds left to give the Cats a two-point victory over the upset-minded Miami of Ohio RedHawks.

His legend at UK was born there, but may have finished on Saturday night against West Virginia when he fouled out for the first time in what many believe will be his final game as a collegiate athlete. Wall, and many others, said he wasn’t thinking about the future, but instead was remembering the season.

“It’s one of the worst feelings I’ve ever had,” Wall said. “It’s not like losing somebody in your family, but it’s something close to it. We’re all brothers, we all look out for each other, no matter whether it’s off the court or on the court.”

The Cats came a long way from that thriller on Nov. 16, winning their next 17 games, earning the No. 1 ranking in the country and a congratulatory phone call from U.S. President Barack Obama for their efforts in helping raise more than $1 million for Haiti relief.

The freshman-laden team proved doubters wrong the entire season, winning games big, from behind and in tight situations.

They did so around the country against small teams like Miami of Ohio, and big teams like North Carolina.

They did so in intimate settings like the hotel ballroom/makeshift basketball court in the Cancun Challenge, and on one of the biggest stages of them all, Madison Square Garden.

“We’re a terrific team, everybody came together as brothers,” Eric Bledsoe said. “I’ve never seen a team like that, so talented, without too many egos, coming together as one. I guess we did that.”

Patrick Patterson and Ramon Harris were two players who got to see the good, the bad and the ugly during their years at UK. The junior and senior said the 2009-10 season was the best of their respective careers.

“It’s the best year that I’ve had,” Patterson said. “It’s the (most fun) year that I’ve had. It’s the most enjoyable year that I’ve had.

“I’ve had my ups and downs, but like I said, this is the most fun that I’ve had since I’ve been in college,” said Harris with bloodshot eyes.

Despite the wins, the records and the rejuvenation of a program that was in a slumber, the Cats could only talk about each other and the good times they shared throughout a long, five-month season.

After the loss to West Virginia, Harris said he felt like “crap.” Bledsoe said it was the first time he had ever cried following a basketball game. Cousins said he just wanted to wake up from a bad dream.

“I’ve never had this much fun in my life,” Cousins said about the season. “I wish we could have ended on a good note. For Ramon, Mark Krebs, Perry (Stevenson), Patrick, some of them have been through hell the past two seasons. I just wish we could have ended on a good note.”

Labeled as one of the greatest freshman classes in program history, Wall, Cousins and Bledsoe declined to comment on their futures after the loss, but Bledsoe did say not making the Final Four would influence his decision on whether to return or not. Patterson was also noncommittal after the loss, saying he had a lot of time to make his decision.

The players said Calipari told them he was proud of the team and to keep their heads up. It’s exactly what Calipari did to a fanbase that had grown anxious after two years of eccentric basketball.

While a program has been reborn, blue is back in the Bluegrass, and UK basketball is relevant again on a national level, the eighth national championship banner will have to wait.

“You’re happy that you put the program back on the map, and we won a lot of games,” Wall said. “But you’re disappointed that you didn’t reach your goals that you had as a team, and that’s winning a championship.”