Seniors deserve fitting exit after a career of high hopes

They should have went all the way.

And when you look back, they certainly could have.

When UK’s 2004 class rolled into Lexington, it was headlined by three All-Americans. Tubby Smith’s best class ever came with the unspoken promises of national dominance, as do all schools that bring in that much talent in one class.

The Cats had all the pieces — a legitimate big man, a true floor general, a bouncy wing and a scrappy guard.

Those four added to the already established players on UK’s roster meant one thing — a national championship. But somewhere on the road to glory, in between the fall of 2004 and today, individual paths and personal detours erased any chances of cutting down the nets for the highly regarded group.

NBA dollars lured two of the three All-Americans away, and the pressure from impatient fans hungry to hoist a new championship banner forced Smith away three years after landing the top recruiting class in the nation.

That brings us to today’s Cats. Of the four players that came to UK in 2004, seniors Ramel Bradley and Joe Crawford, the remaining All-American, are the leftovers. The Cats went from a team that should have won a national championship in Crawford’s and Bradley’s first year when UK advanced to the Elite Eight, to a team on the bubble, uncertain of an NCAA berth in their senior year. Because of the revolving door of players leaving early, the two never made a Final Four appearance in their four years.

Still Bradley and Crawford have seen much success in the final push of their careers. Both are in the top-10 in scoring in the Southeastern Conference. Crawford’s 17.1 is sixth, Bradley’s 16.0 is tenth.

And with the help of freshman forward Patrick Patterson — prior to his season ending injury — the Cats are tied for the second best conference record heading into Sunday’s Senior Night game against Florida.

Now more then ever, and much like their freshman seasons, UK’s plan for a successful finish to the season rests solely on their shoulders.

With Patterson gone for the year, and maybe for good as dominant freshmen leaving for the NBA have become the norm, Crawford and Bradley will have to pick up the slack to determine how their careers at UK will end.

Strong performances like Crawford’s career high 35 points against South Carolina Wednesday will be key for the Cats heading into the postseason. Every night isn’t going to be a career night, but Bradley and Crawford have to keep their engines in high gear because without a post presence, the conference tournament next week will be no easy coast.

Which raises another question: What would be a prefect finish to their careers?

The truthful answer is something that most who follow UK hoops aren’t hoping for.

For the Cats to advance past the opening rounds of the NCAA tournament — if they get in — would take Sen. Mitch McConnell pushing for the Take It Easy on the Cats Act of 2008. And even with all the pull McConnell has on Capitol Hill, it would still take a miracle to get the ending Bradley and Crawford deserve after a career of early promises and desertions of former players and coaches.

For that reason the NCAA tournament is not the place for them to end their careers. The NCAA tournament is not a place for teams that enter March wishing to be a part of the Madness. The teams that are nail-biters on Selection Sunday are the clubs that don’t make it past the first weekend of the tournament.

This year, UK is one of those teams.

It’s not that UK is a bad team without heart. The close loss to Tennessee Sunday proves they are not. It’s just that there are more than a handful of teams that are better than the Cats. The big tourney is not the way.

But, the N.I.T. is.

It’s in that tournament where the Cats have a sure chance to go all the way and end the season with a championship. Sure, it’s not the NCAA championship, but it’s a huge accomplishment after a season that started with much turmoil.

The N.I.T. tournament final is played at Madison Square Garden, the world’s greatest arena in New York City, which is home to Bradley.

There’s no better place for Bradley to end his career than in front of friends and family after missing the chance to play there earlier this season when the Cats lost in Rupp Arena to Gardner Webb in the opening round of the 2K Sports College Hoops Classic.

There’s no better place for Crawford to end his career than on a stage such as the one in Madison Square Garden, where UK’s leading scorer this season can finish with the entire nation looking on in a nationally televised game.

At UK, it’s all or nothing when it comes to college basketball. So ending careers with a win, instead of the nasty after taste of losses and a third consecutive early round bounce out of the NCAA tournament, would be a fitting way to end the season.

But most importantly to UK’s two seniors, the N.I.T. offers Crawford and Bradley the best chance to finish their careers going all the way.