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Whenever casual college basketball fans bring up the discussion of “teams who changed the sport” the same few always come to mind. Texas Western in 1966 was certainly one. UNLV in the late ’80s and early ’90s might be another. The Fab Five was, for sure.
What most college basketball fans have never taken the time to consider is that there was another team, one that played five years ago, that was as impactful to the current landscape of college basketball as any. A team that took commonly held beliefs and conventional wisdom, flipped them completely on their head and reshaped the entire sport.
That was John Calipari’s first team at the University of Kentucky, the 2009-10 Wildcats. John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Patrick Patterson and others might not be seen as college basketball trailblazers, but … well … they kind of are.
Remember, before those guys, the narrative on “one-and-done” basketball players was almost always the same. The kids were selfish and egotistical, using college only as a place to pad their stats before inevitably departing for the NBA. They didn’t care about their team or their school, or class at all; heck, the commonly held belief was that most kids stopped attending classes after the first semester (if they went at all). To many, they were ultimately more trouble than they were worth, better-suited for non-traditional programs like Ohio State, Memphis and USC, than Duke, Kansas and Kentucky (all three of which might have multiple one-and-dones this season).
Then a funny thing happened: Within one year, the 2009-10 Kentucky Wildcats changed all that and proved one-and-done players can have fun, can go to class and can be good teammates. In the process, they not only shook up college hoops but set the groundwork for everything the UK basketball program has done since.
Which is why on the five-year anniversary of that team’s run to an SEC title, and near Final Four berth, we tracked down members of that 2009-10 Kentucky team to ask them about their impact on college basketball.
However, to understand that team and everything it went through, we must first go back to the end of the 2008-09 season.
That’s where the story of the 2009-10 season begins.
Chad Sanders (team manager): The first year (under Billy Gillispie) we made it to the NCAA tournament. The next year we had Patrick Patterson, Jodie Meeks, guys like that. We made it to the NIT and we lost to Notre Dame.
Matt Jones (Founder, KentuckySportsRadio.com): It’s easy to think about the NIT, now that Kentucky played Robert Morris (in 2013). But (back then), Kentucky had not been to the NIT, I don’t even know when the last time was. Kentucky did not go to the NIT, and then they went to the NIT.
Sanders: All the managers, everybody’s talking about, “Well, if we beat Notre Dame … they won’t fire him.” But we lost to Notre Dame, and it was kind of like “No, they’re not going to do it, they’re going to give him one more year. We’ve got Jodie and Patrick coming back, they’re not going to do it right now.”
Patrick Patterson (sophomore forward): We couldn’t put together enough wins and we lost to teams we should have beaten. Overall, the year was just horrible and no one really had that much fun.
Sanders: As time kind of went on, things kind of got silent and it was like, “Oh something is going to happen.” We had a meeting, and next thing you know he’s fired and we’re helping pack up the assistant coaches’ stuff, all the different offices and getting them out of the Joe Kraft Center.
Josh Harrellson (sophomore forward): I just think from the get-go he (Gillispie) was in over his head. Kentucky is not a job for a lot of people. Not many people can do the requirements of being the head coach at Kentucky. You’ve got to be a fan-pleaser, you’ve got to be a coach on the court, you’ve got to be this public figure.
Sanders: X’s and O’s, I don’t think I’ve ever been around a coach like him. From X’s and O’s I was learning a lot from him, in terms of how to break down games, how he prepares teams for games. But every coach is different, it wasn’t the right fit for him with the media. With everything else at Kentucky, it isn’t just about playing ball.
Jones: I think there was a malaise about it but also kind of a slight panic. During the end of the Tubby Smith era, the last five or six years or so, the team was always good but not great. Then with Billy (Gillispie) there was a little rejuvenation of energy, and then when he failed, I think there were some Kentucky fans that felt like, “Will Kentucky ever be Kentucky again?”
Billy Gillispie was officially fired on Friday, March 27, 2009, a bizarre day across Lexington, documented here by FOX Sports’ Mark Nagi.
With Gillispie gone, Kentucky was looking for a head coach, and its search immediately began to focus on one man.
That one man, however, might not be who you think.
Sanders: Everybody was talking about Billy Donovan.
Jones: Fans first gravitated toward the idea of Billy Donovan because he had almost taken the job two years before. There were rumors going around the day that Billy (Gillispie) was fired that (athletic director Mitch) Barnhart already had an agreement in place to hire Billy Donovan.
Sanders: Over time, you kept hearing more and more that they were going to hire Cal. Cal’s name kept getting brought up more and more.
Jones: If anybody would be honest with you — and they might not — there were three candidates for the job. They were going to interview Billy Donovan, Tom Izzo and John Calipari, and they were going to interview all three of them over one weekend in Chicago. Then fate sort of interjected. Donovan canceled his interview and decided to stay (at Florida). Izzo pulled off an upset of Louisville in the Elite Eight. When Izzo pulled off the upset in the Elite Eight, that meant that to interview him they would have to wait a week until after the Final Four. During that time they interviewed John Calipari and he won them over.
Orlando Antigua (Memphis, now Kentucky, assistant coach): I do remember how hard it was for Cal to actually pull the trigger, actually make the decision, because of the kids we had at Memphis. The kids who were seniors, the guys he recruited there.
Rod Strickland (Memphis, now Kentucky, assistant coach): I do remember being over at his house, and I remember him agonizing over that decision.
John Calipari (Memphis, now Kentucky, head coach): I loved my time at Memphis, and I loved what we had rolling.
Antigua: It was hectic, it was crazy. I had never been a part of anything like that. They were filming our office doors, fans were camping outside of Cal’s home. I remember helicopters, police barricades, it was wild.
Calipari: I just looked at, either I was going to do this, or I was going to finish my career at Memphis. At my age, the opportunity kind of came up, and I was like “I’m doing this.”
Antigua: They (the Memphis players) were the ones who actually gave the blessing for him to move on when we met with them. That had always been the case with Cal and his players — “You have to do what’s best for you.” And when those opportunities came for them, to jump to the NBA or to play professionally (he said to do it).
Calipari: I had never coached at a school like this. And before my career ended, I wanted to see how I would do. I had to beat all those guys. Like, we played Kentucky, and we were supposed to beat them all.
Antigua: Antonio Anderson was the one who said, “Coach, chase your dreams.” If you said that (Kentucky) is the one place (you’d leave Memphis for), and you wouldn’t leave for any one place but that … you told us to chase our dreams, go chase your dreams.
Calipari: Now I wanted to sit at the table with them, rather than the little table on the side. That was my thinking, “Look, before I retire, let me sit with these guys at the table and see how I do.”
Regardless of whether anyone realized it at the time, the evening of Tuesday, March 31, 2009, would officially change college basketball: John Calipari had been hired as the head coach at the University of Kentucky.
Calipari was introduced at a press conference the following day, and at that time two things immediately became clear: Excitement was at an all-time high, and Calipari was the perfect man for the job.
DeWayne Peevy (sports information director): We were hiring John Calipari, and it was less than 24 hours (until the press conference). We were trying to make it so we could go live (on TV). Our practice gym (where the press conference was held) isn’t a public building, so everybody couldn’t just come in. Fans came into Memorial Coliseum for Billy (Gillispie’s) press conference.
Calipari: The press conference appeared to have 1,000 people there.
Peevy: Everybody wanted to see it, even if they couldn’t be there. There were a lot of people there.
Antigua: When Cal first got there, to see the turnout for his press conference, you’re like, “Holy moly.” That was a big “wow” moment.
Peevy: It felt like to me that this was a job that he had looked at and wanted. Just talking to him, before we even went into the press conference, you could tell.
Jones: He referenced Richie Farmer. Now, Richie Farmer is in jail, so it’s not as easy to reference him, but at the time, he referenced this idol of Kentucky basketball. He just got it. You could tell he just got it.
Peevy: You could tell he had really done a lot on his own. I didn’t add much. The whole line of “Pikeville to Paducah” was his own.
Jones: You could just tell immediately that it was the perfect fit.
Peevy: I was just as blown away from that press conference because it just felt like, “This was something different.”
Mark Krebs (junior guard): That first press conference he had, you could tell the buzz around campus. For me as a player, you could tell the buzz around campus was a microcosm for what the buzz was like around the state. You could just tell people were really excited.
You knew something good was in the works. You already knew, something special was going to happen.
Sanders: You knew something good was in the works. You already knew something special was going to happen.
Krebs: That first meeting, when we first found out Cal was our coach, we’re sitting there as players (and) it seems too good to be true. It seemed like he came with an idea of, “Here’s what needs to change around here.” And it wasn’t like he was pointing at us and saying we were bad kids and bad athletes, and we needed to change. He was excited to take his dream job, and he seemed like he was excited to take this journey, and it felt like, man, his energy was really fun to build off of.
Calipari: You get up in an office, in a practice facility and you look out, and there’s the word Kentucky in glitter. And there’s seven national championship banners. There’s no Final Four banners, there’s no league championship banners, its national titles. And you kinda know, “Uh oh, I’m in a little bit of a different place now.”
For both players and coach, the whole situation really did seem too good to be true. At least until the coach saw his team practice for the first time the following day.
Peevy: He didn’t have any of his staff here, the previous staff was gone, and Coach Calipari is here with several of our managers. The (NCAA) tournament was going on, and the NIT, too, so we were allowed to practice.
Krebs: When Coach Calipari got there, I think he had 19 guys (including walk-ons) in his first practice. He said it felt like coaching a football team. He had no assistant coaches with him.
Sanders: I just remember the first couple individual workouts, and how different they were, and how these players had no idea what they were doing when it came to these workouts.
Calipari: This is not to take away from those players, but they had been coached in a high-low offense. They had been coached to run plays. They had been coached to jam the ball inside. No disrespect, but we coached a different way.
Krebs: Under Gillispie, (it was), “Let’s work on running up and down the court. We’re going to run here, run there, then we’re going to be really tired and then we’re going to go get the basketballs and we’re going to do passing drills where you’re constantly passing and running, and passing and running.” It just felt like you were tired.
Ramon Harris (junior guard): You go from a coach who was all about defense. Ninety-five percent of practice is defense, and then your first workout with a (new) coach it’s all offense. Nothing defensive, all offensive moves. You’re kind of shocked, like “We’re not going to go over defense? We’re not going to work on defense? You’re not going to even mention defense in this workout right now?” It was all offense.
Krebs: This was, “We’re going to work on this basketball move, where you’re going to stop here, do a drop-step there and go off this foot.” It was so crazy, it was so new, but it was like, “Man, we’re getting really good at basketball.”
Sanders: He was doing stuff like full-court layups, where you’d have to stride out, go the length of the court in three, four steps, and guys are missing layups. It’s making moves, where you’re getting impacted at the rim, getting hit with pads. I’ve never seen so many missed layups in my life.
Harris: It was teaching the Euro-step off both feet, reverse layups, left, right hand, all types of offensive moves that all season, you didn’t spend too much time on. I can imagine it being a little sloppy.
Sanders: Cal kept preaching, of ‘You’ve got to make layups. You’re going to get layups (in this offense), that’s what you’ve got to do.’ It was funny to see how the guys were struggling to make layups, to do things that you think are simple, but Cal’s got them going so hard.
Calipari: When we went through the first practice, I was just about physically ill, like “What did I just do?” And Coach (Joe B.) Hall came over, and I had my head in my hands, and he said “Coach, it’s going to be fine.” And the crazy thing is he was right.
Peevy: My job at the time was to make sure he didn’t run away. … I’m pretty sure that he had some perceptions of the talent that he had, and coming in, he seemed a little disappointed with the depth of talent. Not the front end but the depth. Coming from Memphis, he’s not watching Kentucky.
Jones: I’ve talked to a lot of people, and Cal had a workout when he first got here, with the guys that were there, and he realized, “You know what, I’ve got to get some players.”
Indeed he did.
Before the focus turned to who might be coming in, the staff first worried about those who might be leaving.
Antigua: Our biggest job was to re-recruit Patrick Patterson and Daniel Orton (a high school recruit who’d committed to Gillispie) when we got there. Jodie Meeks was the other one that we tried to keep.
Daniel Orton (freshman center): Literally, right after they got the job, the next day or two they came out to visit me at my house. They said that I was one of their main priorities, that they knew they had to come recruit me. That was really impressive to me that they did that.
Antigua: Patrick Patterson had to explain to us why he wanted to come back to school.
Patterson: It was funny; normally a coach would try to convince you to stay. Or even try to sell a few things, whether it be playing time or getting you more touches or revolving the system around you. Cal did none of that. All he basically said was, “I’d love to get the opportunity to coach you, but you have to do what’s best for you and your family. You will be a first-round draft pick.” And that was basically it.
Antigua: His points to us were that he wanted to expand his game and he wanted to be part of an NCAA tournament team. So he came back.
Patterson: The things that made me want to stay was the chance to get my degree in three years, which I did. And to play alongside (the freshmen) and have one more run at finally making to the NCAA tournament. I didn’t get to play in it my first year since I had gotten hurt.
Jones: There were a lot of questions whether Jodie Meeks would stay. He was trying to decide what to do.
Peevy: We thought he was just going to test the waters; back then you could test the waters, work out for teams, and Jodie was going to go through that process and see what he had to work on.
Antigua: Jodie Meeks was going into his third coach and just wanted to try his opportunities that he had in front of him, especially not knowing how we (as a coaching staff) were going to play or utilize him.
Peevy: Jodie went out and had such great workouts for teams, that he figured, “I don’t want a third coach in four years, I’m probably shooting as well as I’m going to shoot, let me try this.”
With the veterans in tow, and Orton and local star Jon Hood re-affirming their commitments, Calipari’s first team was quickly starting to take shape.
Still there were holes left to be filled, and it was time to see whether Calipari could deliver on a promise he first made at his introductory press conference. There he told Kentucky fans that when it came to recruiting he planned to bring in “the best of the best.”
Calipari quickly proved that his comments weren’t just all talk.
Harrellson: When Coach Cal came, that’s all you heard about was the new guys coming in.
Jones: DeMarcus was the first one. He may have even done an interview where he said, “I’m going where Cal goes.” Then there was the kid Xavier Henry. He ended up going to Kansas, but there was a time where a lot of people thought he was coming here.
John Wall (freshman guard): I turned on the TV (in 2008), and I saw Derrick (Rose) playing and I was like, “Shoot, this is where I could play.” I loved how they were playing.
Jones: I do remember the build-up for Wall. It was, “Is Wall going to come?” Here, Duke and Miami, if I remember correctly, were the top ones.
Wall: I kind of already knew where I was going to go but I wanted to give every school an opportunity in case I switched my mind up. But in the back in my mind I knew I wanted to go play for Coach Cal, just because of the style of play he played, plus how I saw Derrick (Rose) play (under Calipari).
Harris: When Coach had gotten established, Eric Bledsoe came on his official visit. He played with us, we were like ‘Wow, he’s good.’
Eric Bledsoe (freshman guard): He never promised me anything, that’s what he told me when he came and recruited me. There were a lot of teams that were telling me, that were promising me playing time.
Krebs: (Bledose committing right after Wall) showed me that guys really do want to play for him (Calipari). Call me old-school, but when you have a point guard who just committed, who’s highly touted and highly talented, the other guy will probably go somewhere else. And that wasn’t the case.
Bledsoe: He was recruiting John, and he wanted us both to come in and play. He definitely told me that. That made me want to come even more.
Strickland: They knew there was going to be competition … but Eric Bledsoe, he embraced that. He had no problems with that. There was no hesitation, none of that. He just wanted to come to Kentucky and be part of something special.
Orton: As you see it forming, I got excited. You know all these big names, players that are really good, and you know you’re going to end up doing something special.
Krebs: And once they did get on campus, it was a different atmosphere.
Harris: We’re like, “Man, these guys are really good.”
Scott Padgett (assistant coach): I was there the first day he worked them all out, the players who had stayed. And I was like, “Ooo, this is bad.” And then you bring in the new class of six and you’re like, “Ooo, we’ve got some talent here.” And it went from that in April (during the first workout) to completely different when the signing period rolled around.
Krebs: Playing pick-up games, you could just tell the competition was stiff. You could tell the way that the guys were playing, the things that were happening in the pick-up games. Things were just different. The alley-oops, the fast-break dunks were phenomenal. And you could just tell there was a big difference from the year prior when we went to the NIT.
Harris: They (the freshmen) were all really talented, but they didn’t come in (acting) like they were talented. They came in asking a bunch of questions.
Wall: We came in and just worked hard. We didn’t come in thinking we were going to have the No. 1 spot. We started off on the second squad and we had to work for our starting position. I think Coach Cal did a great job of embracing us, but (also) making everyone work.
Krebs: Once everyone got on campus, there was honestly never a moment over who’s getting playing time and who’s not.
Harris: It was never an issue of territorial, like, “I’ve been here three years. You’re not just going to come in here and take mine.” No, it was never like that.
Martin Newton (director of basketball operations): Patrick Patterson set the tone. Patrick was a blue-collar, take-your-lunch-pail, put-your-hat-on, come-to-work kind of guy. His ego was not such that he had to have the ball all the time, he was just going to work. He set the tone for everyone else because if Patrick could do it, if he was going to be the hardest-working guy on the court, the rest of the guys could do it.
Sanders: Patrick Patterson, he was a roommate of mine, and that kid just wanted to win. And he was the one who always kind of brought them together, to play pick-up or whatever.
Krebs: The attitude of the guys who stuck around, Perry Stevenson, Ramon Harris, Patrick Patterson, they were the best guys you can have on a team. Unbelievable teammates. They were also unbelievable athletes who knew, “We’re seniors, regardless of who comes in, we’re going to make this work.”
Orton: Perry Stevenson and Ramon Harris were guys who were starters the year before. They did a good job of staying with us, and we had somebody to talk to if things weren’t going well.
Bledsoe: Yeah they did (embrace us younger guys). There wasn’t any animosity. They could’ve easily been like, “You’re the young guys of the team, you’ve got to fall in line.” But they let us come in and pretty much run the show.
Krebs: I think that was all part of the culture change that Coach Cal always talked about. It was about having new guys coming in and the older guys accepting them. One of the reasons you had Perry Stevenson, Ramon Harris, their skill on the court, they could play, they could hold their own. They weren’t going to be a distraction (off the court) either.
Harrellson: All those guys sacrificed something. When Daniel (Orton) found out DeMarcus (Cousins) was coming, Daniel could’ve gone anywhere in the country and started at center. Eric Bledsoe could’ve gone anywhere and started at point guard rather than playing two guard.
Antigua: That was one of the things that we talked about throughout that summer is that everyone would have to sacrifice for the betterment of the team. They all had to do their part.
Harris: Any time you see McDonald’s All-Americans sacrificing points, minutes, playing time, to be a part of what you’re doing, you’re doing something special.
After several months together, a group of highly touted freshmen and veteran returnees had blended from a group of individuals into a team ready and willing to sacrifice whatever it took to win. Now, it was time to introduce that team to the world at Big Blue Madness.
Big Blue Madness is Kentucky’s version of Midnight Madness, but with a twist. Unlike at most other schools, fans camp out for weeks just for the chance to get a ticket.
Simply put, excitement is always high for the event.
In the fall of 2009 the excitement level was through the roof, with everyone ready to meet the new stars and their coach.
Sanders: Big Blue Madness was nuts.
Krebs: You had the energy in the tent area, where people were hanging out, it seemed like it was a party, a festivity, and not, “Man, we’re camping out for days to go to a practice.” It was lively; they made the most of it.
Sanders: Every year, they (the team) do stuff with the fans. That year Cal had the players passing out pizzas and doughnuts to the fans who were camping out.
Jones: Whether they were told to or did it naturally, they engaged in fans in ways they hadn’t done before. Now it’s normal. Players come out and play games with fans, but that didn’t used to happen before Cal. It used to be that the players stayed away from it, honestly.
Antigua: During the campout is when you got a chance to realize, holy moly, there was a connection of our guys and the fans. You had DeMarcus going out there playing pick-up at 1 in the morning, 2 in the morning, playing out there with kids on the blacktop. We had to say, “Guys, you can’t be out there! You’re going to hurt yourselves!”
Peevy: After we hired Cal, in the summer, and Jason Schlafer, who was our assistant AD for marketing at the time, he was the one running Big Blue Madness. It was probably a dream situation for Jason. That Big Blue Madness (in 2009) was big. It felt bigger than ever.
Newton: You take that tradition that was already there and you take John Calipari, who is one of the most passionate people and creative thinkers you’ve ever been around.
Peevy: You’ve got to remember that you’re dealing with Coach Cal, who’s a big ideas guy and was used to doing everything at his previous stops — not having a Jason or myself or a staff. He’s used to running everything. He’s kind of doing everything from an entertainment standpoint; should we do a dunk contest? Do I need to go make some calls for some entertainment?
Sanders: Then the actual event, the fans first of all are going crazy because we hadn’t had a recruiting class like that since Tubby (Smith) had Rondo, Joe Crawford and Randolph Morris.
Peevy: I remember when he told me about the idea that these guys were going to be on these harnesses, coming down from the rafters.
Krebs: They had (us) go through safety, and I’m glad they did. We were all like, “We’re going to do what? From where?” And they were like, “Don’t worry, you’re going to be safe!”
Jon Hood (freshman forward): We were lifted up one by one, lifted up by the scissor lifts. We all got put up behind the big screen, and they put the spotlight on us.
Krebs: I’ve never seen people more scared.
Bledsoe: I was (scared). It was shaky. That’s scary, you think it’s gonna fall if you’ve never done it before.
Krebs: DeMarcus didn’t want to let go of the railings. He’s scared to death going up on a 30-foot dolly, thing.
Peevy: DeMarcus Cousins was the most scared person alive doing that. He had talked about dancing like John Wall did, but he was so scared that he just held on and did not move. If you go back and watch the video on YouTube you will notice, he doesn’t move, he doesn’t say a word, he doesn’t shake, because he was scared of heights and he did not want to do that.
Wall: He was supposed to dance before me. Then I was going to dance. But he was so scared.
Sanders: Those guys had done that dance in the locker room before, John Wall and DeMarcus had done that dance, and it just happened that John did it, and it blew the top off of Kentucky.
Wall: DeMarcus wanted to dance too, but he got scared. So I did it.
Jones: The moment when John Wall danced, if you asked Kentucky fans to remember something from the Cal era, almost everyone is going to mention that. It was almost like a moment where people were like, “OK, we’re back.”
Sanders: Next thing you knew, everybody is doing it. There’s YouTube videos of people everywhere doing it.
Wall: I didn’t expect for there to be that atmosphere (and excitement) behind it. Everybody went crazy.
Jones: It’s a dance, it seems stupid. But for the first time in my lifetime, with the possible exception of Rex Chapman, Kentucky had the coolest player in the country. Now everyone thinks of Kentucky as the cool team, but that didn’t used to be the case. People kind of looked at Kentucky like they were always the good team, but they never had the cool player. We weren’t the Fab Five, we weren’t UNLV, we weren’t even Duke, who wasn’t cool, but at least had players everybody knew.
Peevy: That was the first time, but from a staff standpoint (Big Blue Madness) did what it was supposed to do. It started the hype of, “This is going to be a special season.”
Newton: My sense was at Big Blue Madness was that this was going to be something special.
With the team assembled and Big Blue Madness behind them, the season was set to get underway.
But while Kentucky began the year ranked in top five — an incredible feat when you remember they’d played in the NIT just six months before — there was still a lot of work to do.
Even with a summer of workouts, and weeks of practice, the team struggled at the start.
Peevy: In practices, we didn’t execute well. We had guys athletically that could play the game, play defense, but you didn’t know what you were going to get every game.
Harrellson: Any time you bring in new players, or a new coach or a new system it takes a lot of time to learn it, learn how to play with each other and develop that chemistry.
Orton: It was an unusual situation to where you have a new coach coming in. Later on, you have your juniors and seniors out there at practice and they’ll show your freshmen the ropes. But Cal started from scratch. Everybody was new to everything.
Calipari: Understand this was different. Now (in 2015), you have three returning players, maybe four. Well that year, everybody was new. They were new, I was new, and they were new to each other.
Peevy: Getting a preseason No. 4 ranking with a whole new team (was unbelievable). But it wasn’t the expectation that people have right now that freshmen can come in and immediately put up numbers. Back then it was, “Hey, we’re going to be better and it’s going to be a lot of fun.” But nobody was talking about, Wwe’re going to win the national championship.”
Orton: The first game we were worried because something happened with John where he wasn’t going to be able to play.
Hood: The first game of the year we played Morehead State. They had Kenneth Faried, a couple other guys who are in the D-League now. Coach (Donnie) Tyndall was the coach before he took off for Southern Miss, and then Tennessee.
Peevy: And then to go in there and the first game John Wall doesn’t play, and Eric Bledsoe steps up.
Krebs: One (thing we learned quickly) was how good Eric Bledsoe was. He stepped up when we beat Morehead State in the opener. He played very well.
Bledsoe: I can remember I was in the zone. I started off the game a little slow, but I ended up picking it up.
Krebs: The next day, John Wall hit the game-winner against Miami of Ohio.
Wall: Coach Cal didn’t like to call set plays, so he told me to take the ball up and I attacked, so he wanted to see if I could make a shot. I threw it up and it went in.
Hood: Miami of Ohio threw in so many threes against us, and we probably did not deserve to win that one.
Bledsoe: We started off that season, and there were a lot of games early on that we probably should’ve lost.
Peevy: I don’t know if you remember, but Cal was at the press conferences and he was always talking about “Our record is 10-6” or, “It should be 11-7.” He was counting all the games he thought we should’ve lost.
Calipari: But we were a team that had a great will to win. That’s why I was saying all along that we should be 9-6, 9-7, I wasn’t lying. We could’ve easily been that.
Peevy: That year, even though we were highly ranked, people still didn’t believe in us because we’d almost lose every game.
Antigua: It’s a big aspect of the game that doesn’t get talked about a lot, but finding a way to win when you’re not necessarily playing at your best.
Bledsoe: But the talented team we had, we had so much poise.
Antigua: There were moments where you could see if they could sustain or maintain what they were doing for a number of minutes consistently, it’d be through the roof.
The team was quickly coming together; the Wildcats weren’t necessarily winning big, but to their credit, were finding ways to win. Early-season highlights included a tournament in Cancun that featured two distinct memories for those who attended: a win over Landry Fields and Stanford as well as a bizarre setup that included chandeliers hanging over the court, and an open bar just a few feet behind one of the baskets.
But as fun as things were to start the season, they were about to get serious as the calendar shifted toward December. After a 7-0 start, two games featuring top 15 opponents loomed when Kentucky hosted No. 10 North Carolina before traveling to Madison Square Garden to take on No. 15 UConn.
On paper, no one knew whether the Wildcats matched up with their more experienced opponents.
But games aren’t played on paper, and what no one — outside a few folks in the Kentucky locker room — realized was that the Wildcats had the best player in college basketball.
John Wall was set to show the whole world how good he was. He was also set to show his home-state school of North Carolina how silly it had been for not recruiting him out of high school.
Sanders: North Carolina was also a top 10 team. That was our first real test. That was the first chance to prove, “Are these guys all hype, or can they come out and really play?”
Orton: You talk about playing a good, experienced, North Carolina team. An older team and more experienced than us. Everybody really wanted to see how we were going to match up, if we were going to get the win.
Hood: That North Carolina game was the one John wanted. John wanted that one bad. For whatever reason, he wanted that one more than any other one. He took over and took it straight to them.
Wall: I went up there my junior year (for a recruiting visit), but they didn’t want to offer me. (And then, when they did offer) they wanted me to commit on the spot. I was like, “I don’t want to commit on the spot. If you think I’m good enough, offer me.” But they didn’t. So when we played them, I was so hype.
Peevy: We jumped out on them, we made this huge run, like 25-2 kind of run.
Sanders: I remember John Wall went on a tear like, two fast breaks in a row. There was one where he threw a pass to Eric Bledsoe, and he threw a pass back to him, and John dunked over Dexter Strickland. Then the next one, he did a behind-the-back and dunked on a contested fast-break.
Jones: Wall had this moment where he did a crossover, and dunked on a fast break. If there has been a louder moment at Rupp Arena, I don’t know when it’s been.
Krebs: It was like everything that Cal came to do, and all his preseason quotes, the messages he has in his interviews, they all seemed to be coming true in that game.
Sanders: That’s when you kind of like saw, “Wow, this team is really, really, good.”
Krebs: That’s (the game) where I was getting calls from family members, like “You guys are for real.” And like, “Who’s that John Wall guy?”
Jones: (It) was a moment, of, “We’re here.”
Hood: Next we played Connecticut in the Garden.
Jones: The game in New York (against UConn) is the one that stands out because there were so many Kentucky fans there.
Krebs: It wasn’t until we went to Madison Square Garden, that gave you an idea of the change from the year before.
Jones: Kentucky plays in New York every year (before and since), and I’ve been there every year, and it was never like that. It was like every Kentucky fan had to be at that game, because it was the first, like, “Here we are” basketball game. It was insane. It was insane.
Krebs: We got off the bus at the hotel we were staying at, and there was a line that was almost a tunnel of people going to the front door of the hotel of Kentucky fans. And it was in New York. We were like, “This is unreal!”
Sanders: That atmosphere (in Madison Square Garden) was awesome.
Wall: We started out on a 12-0 run. Then I got two fouls and Coach Cal was mad at me early in the game. Then I came back and had a big second half and helped us win the game.
Bledsoe: John just went nuts.
Jones: John Wall went off in that game, and there was a big sense of like, “Wow, we also have maybe the best player in the country.”
Sanders: (He) had a big and-one lay-up. He was just taking over at the end of the game. John put them on his back.
Krebs: That was the first moment that Kentucky as a program, was taking a step in the right direction. Kemba Walker hit some big shots, Stanley Robinson was playing well, it was like we were playing a really good Connecticut team, they had some really good players, they were making really big shots, and we made one more than them.
Wall: For us to go in there and beat a veteran team like UConn, it was fun.
Krebs: It was the first time in a couple years that I felt like (there was) two big teams colliding in a really good matchup, and we came out ahead. I was like; “This is why I came to Kentucky!”
Hood: That was when it kind of turned into, “Ok, these guys can play with anybody. They can beat anybody.”
Kentucky had passed its first few big tests with flying colors and would spend the rest of December cruising. The Wildcats entered the new year at 14-0, celebrating the program’s 2,000th win in the process.
But before SEC play would get underway, there was one final out of conference test, and it came against hated rival Louisville.
The Cardinals had won two in a row in the series but entered their matchup with the Wildcats unhappy with all the newfound attention that their cross-state rivals were getting.
Krebs: We were undefeated at that point, but it was playing your rival, and they’d beaten us on a last-second three the year before, and the year before they’d won by like 25. So they were riding high, they were the big dogs, they had us two years in a row, they were going for No. 3. Plus us being undefeated, No. 1 or No. 2 in the country — we were definitely top five — all played into it.
Strickland: The Louisville game, that was the most intense game. I’ll never forget the beginning of that game. I don’t think Louisville shook our hands, acknowledged us.
Krebs: I’ve never been in more of an intense environment at a sporting event, like “I don’t know if it’s going to come to blows. I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Patterson: Within the first minute, I believe, there was a scuffle going on between both teams on the court.
Krebs: Everyone is excited, everybody is jacked up. It felt like a football game, like that football intensity. There was so much hype around that game, so much intensity.
Strickland: Once the game got started Eric Bledsoe got into it with Tony Delk’s nephew (Reginald), which was interesting because Tony Delk was on our staff.
Jones: There was almost a fight, and Calipari got in one of the Louisville player’s faces a little bit. DeMarcus Cousins got a technical.
Strickland: DeMarcus Cousins, he almost put somebody’s head through the ground. They were tough guys, they’re competitive, they weren’t going to back down. John Wall, DeMarcus, Eric Bledsoe were not backing down to anybody.
Krebs: Their mentality was, “Let’s try to impose our will because if we get them out of their game, they’re a bunch of young guys. If we get their heads out of the game, we’ll win.”
Sanders: It was one of those things, ‘Are these guys going to lose their heads? Or can they stay composed?’ And they stayed composed.
Krebs: I was in the huddle screaming, like “Calm down, we’ll win this if we play normal. Don’t get thrown out, don’t get in trouble, don’t get technical fouls, don’t give them points.” That’s what they wanted, that’s what Louisville wanted was talking, getting in guys heads.
Eventually tensions calmed and Kentucky held on to a 71-62 victory that showed just how good its two top two freshmen truly were. Cousins finished with 18 points and 18 rebounds, and with the Wildcats trailing by one in the middle of the second half, Wall went on a personal 6-0 run to give the Wildcats a lead they’d never relinquish.
Simply put, Kentucky was flying high.
That is, until tragedy struck 1,500 miles away in Haiti.
Shortly before the Wildcats were set to take on South Carolina in Columbia, news broke that an earthquake had hit the small island nation, killing thousands, and leaving millions more homeless.
And it was at that moment that Calipari heard about the tragedy and decided he needed to do something to help.
He and his staff came up with “Hoops for Haiti,” a one-of-a-kind phone-a-thon that raised more than a million dollars for disaster relief.
It also led to a phone call from the most unlikely place imaginable.
Peevy: That was a cool moment because it came together so quickly. Here we are, in the middle of the season, and tragedy strikes. Cal got a call from a friend, and all of a sudden “We’ve got to do something.”
Krebs: Coach Cal is really good at taking the stuff that’s happening in the news and in the media and teaching life lessons.
Wall: Everything we did at Kentucky was giving back as much as we could.
Newton: I think that’s the thing that is not talked about enough with John Calipari. The “Hoops for Haiti” came strictly because he saw a need, because he was devastated with what happened in Haiti. He had a platform at the University of Kentucky to do something about it.
Sanders: That’s the perfect example of Cal understanding where he is, at Kentucky. He set up the phone-a-thon to raise money to help Haiti.
Newton: And with Cal, it wasn’t like he came up with the idea and then passed it on to somebody. He was actively involved in getting with the television station, getting other coaches around the country to call in and make donations, and reaching out to people.
Peevy: The guys (players) didn’t hesitate a bit, they wanted to help out.
Jones: It was really remarkable to watch. The kids were really into it. It wasn’t some place they felt like they had to be.
Sanders: The players are answering the phones, the fans are calling in because they want to talk to the players.
Harrellson: They’d say “I love you Josh, I love you Jorts! Your time will come!” and all this other stuff.
Krebs: It was an eye-opener for me, like yes it’s cool playing Kentucky basketball, to win games, it’s cool to go to Madison Square Garden. But we’re making a big difference and people are taking notice.
Antigua: We went through and raised a million dollars for Haiti.
Jones: Think about the notion that a college basketball team in Kentucky would raise a million dollars for earthquake victims in Haiti during the season. That’s kind of insane if you think about it.
Peevy: We end up getting a call that President Obama wanted to congratulate the team for their “Hoops for Haiti” efforts.
Krebs: We didn’t realize it was a national thing, we thought it was more or less a thing around the state, around the Commonwealth, even around Lexington, really. We didn’t realize how far it reached.
Jones: The Obama phone call is … when has a college basketball team ever gotten a phone call from the President in January?
Peevy: We’re trying to figure out when we can do (the call), and we were on the road. I want to say we found out right before we left town, which was right before the South Carolina game. We ended up doing it right after our shootaround, earlier in the day, right before we play. So we do it in their press conference room, so some media can be there. And it’s Cal, DeMarcus, John, Patrick.
Peevy: The most nervous moment was seeing those guys get prepared to talk to the President. They were so nervous. We had to give them something to say, just in case they couldn’t say anything.
Patterson: Getting to speak to the President, even if only for a brief moment, was unbelievable.
Peevy: We were in the locker room, making sure those guys were comfortable, knowing what they want to say (when Obama called). And they’re all like, “We’re fine, we know what we’re doing. This is not a big deal.” And I said, “Ok, you guys are comfortable? Cool.”
Then we get ready to go, and DeMarcus starts freaking out, like, “What do I say?” Like all of a sudden, he realized this was a big deal. Like, he’s getting to talk to the President. He was like, “I forgot what I’m supposed to say. What am I going to do?” So we wrote everything on an index card. And I gave one to him, gave one to John Wall just in case. If you listen closely, they’re kind of robotic, like they froze up. I didn’t think John would; DeMarcus clearly showed he was rattled on the front end, but John ended up showing the same thing. President Obama referenced him, called him by name, and the first thing John says is, “This is John Wall.” That was the funniest part about that, the guys were so nervous.
Wall: Yeah, I was nervous! The President was calling us.
Patterson: After that was over and we got back to the room first thing I did was text all my friends and then call my family. Can’t remember if I was supposed to do that or not.
Orton: Unfortunately, we did lose that game (to South Carolina).
Hood: Since then, I’ve said, “That was the curse.” Obama never calls anybody during the season, and he called us. We got 30 rung up on us by (South Carolina guard) Devan Downey and walk out with a loss.
Padgett: We had a young team, ripe for a letdown, and we had a letdown.
Hood: I just think we didn’t come out and play our best, and they came out and had a great game plan.
Krebs: If you go back and look at it, there were so many games that were close and probably shouldn’t have been. And it was like, “If we play, we can just turn it on when we need to turn it on, we’re going to be fine.” That was the one game that we just couldn’t turn it on.
Sanders: It was a wake-up call, like “We can be beat. We’re not invincible, and every team is going to come out against us, and we’ve got to be ready for that.” (Calipari) preached that all along, “We’re everybody’s Super Bowl,” so you’ve got to build yourself to handle that.
Padgett: It could’ve been one of those, you have a letdown, and you’re down in the dumps, and you roll off two or three losses in a row. Instead we go right back on a winning streak.
Krebs: But it was totally a wake-up call, and it was a message for us, like “We can’t just play for 35 minutes half speed and think we can turn it on and win in the last five.” We need to pounce on teams and win big when we need to, and take care of things early.
Hood: After that one, it was really like, “We’re going to kill everyone from here on out.” And that’s basically what we did.
From the South Carolina loss through the end of the regular season, the Wildcats went 10-1, with the most notable win likely coming in Starkville, Miss., in what is simply known in Kentucky circles as the “call me” game. DeMarcus Cousins’ phone number got out, and he received hundreds of calls from Mississippi State fans prior to tip-off (he answered several of them, by the way). Cousins responded in the way that only DeMarcus Cousins could, putting his hand up to his ear and screaming “call me” at the student section, after a big dunk in the game.
Safe to say the Wildcats were having fun, and winning big, and not really thinking about the looming end to the season.
Instead their focus turned toward the SEC tournament, where another matchup with Mississippi State turned into one of the wildest games in program history.
Jones: Nashville those few days, was about as fun time as it could be to be a Kentucky fan. It was just like a UK party, everywhere you went.
Sanders: We played in Nashville, and Nashville — virtually anywhere you go — is all Kentucky fans. But Nashville, being a smaller stadium, Kentucky was probably 80 to 90 percent of that stadium.
Peevy: I knew it was a different level when we played Tennessee, in Nashville, and 90 percent of the people there were in Kentucky blue.
Jones: Kentucky just pounds their first two opponents. They beat a really good Tennessee team and they pounded them by like 30.
Sanders: The players wanted it. I think the players wanted it for the older guys. The younger guys wanted to prove — Kentucky hadn’t won an SEC title in a while — they wanted to prove Kentucky was back on top. This was the chance to come back and say, “This is our conference, we got this.”
Harris: We knew Mississippi State (in the championship game) was going to be a tough game. When we played them at Mississippi State it was a close game. It was a team that was playing real high-level basketball like we were. They had us on the ropes for most of the game.
The Bulldogs not only had Kentucky on the ropes, they basically had it beat.
Mississippi State was ahead 64-61 with five seconds to play when the Bulldogs elected to foul Bledsoe, rather take the chance and allow Kentucky to make a three.
To his credit, Bledsoe made the first, to cut the deficit to 64-62.
Even then, Kentucky needed a miracle, not just to win the game but to simply force overtime.
And the Wildcats got one from Cousins.
Krebs: Since I was a kid, in second or third grade, my dad was a high school basketball coach. So he always tried the “off-the-back of the basket, miss a free throw on purpose” to try to get extra points, and it never worked! The one time it worked in my entire life was in the SEC tournament for the championship. And the way it worked! We missed, it came back and went to John.
Harris: What happened was John (Wall) shot a three to win the game, and DeMarcus tipped it in. DeMarcus got a tip-in at the buzzer, to send it to overtime. But I think a lot of us thought it was a winner, me included. In my mind I’m thinking, “We won on DeMarcus’ tip-in,” so we chased him halfway down the court.
Sanders: My job then was substitutions. I followed substitution patterns for the other team, and I held the clipboard for Cal going into timeouts. Well, DeMarcus hits his shot and everyone’s celebrating, and I’m trying to hand Cal his board and trying to watch the other side for substitutions. And I remember Coach Antigua grabbing the guys like, “We’ve still got to play!”
Antigua: I remember two things out of that game: One, the resolve and the will to win. And two, the fact that I didn’t want anybody to get hurt in that damn celebration. We still had overtime! These guys are celebrating, and I’m like “Man, we’ve got overtime!”
Krebs: Once we got into overtime, we were definitely overpowering them, and we knew where to go to get our points. The overtime was pretty much known.
Sanders: I remember celebrating in the locker room after that Mississippi State game. The players took a lot of pride in winning that SEC Championship. The players really, really wanted it.
Harris: They have that picture in the practice facility, and every time I go back I look at that, like “Memories.”
It truly was a dream season for Kentucky, and as the team entered the home stretch, no one was hiding the fact that the Wildcats were thinking title, even though few of the players had actually played in an NCAA tournament. Remember that in addition to be a freshman-dominated team, Kentucky was in the NIT the season before.
Still, when things tipped off, everyone on Kentucky knew the reality: The Wildcats were the team to beat.
Krebs: I remember meeting at his (Calipari’s) house, we had a little breakfast. It was Selection Sunday, or it may have been that Monday afterwards. He said, “We’re going to take one game at a time, everything’s reset right now. Don’t worry about what the rest of the country is doing, what the rest of the bracket is doing, just worry about us.”
Sanders: Going into it, I knew we were the best team in the tournament. After seeing all the teams we had played, the games we had lost, there wasn’t a better team out there.
Krebs: We never had that it’s-ours-to-lose (mentality before). It was always, “Let’s go out there and see what happens!” Even as seniors, we never had that. The year before that we were in the NIT, the year before that we were an 11-seed playing against Marquette.
Hood: We played East Tennessee State (in the first round) and bulldozed them. We played Wake Forest (second round) and bulldozed them.
Jones: Then they went up to Syracuse and played Cornell. That week the national media really played up the whole smart kids versus one-and-done stupid kids, basically.
Sanders: The biggest game was the Cornell game that got so much hype. They had all these educated players, like it was the educated players versus the jocks. And can the youth beat the older guys at Cornell, who are running the Princeton offense.
Jones: That Cornell game produced one of the great DeMarcus Cousins quotes of all-time. They were asking him about Cornell, and about them being so smart, and he basically said, “I’m not worried about it. This ain’t no spelling bee.” I think that’s one of my favorite quotes of his, of all-time.
That Cornell game produced one of the great DeMarcus Cousins quotes of all-time. They were asking him about Cornell, and about them being so smart, and he basically said, ‘I’m not worried about it. This ain’t no spelling bee.’
Hood: Cornell, I think that was the game they asked DeMarcus what he thought about the Ivy Leagues, or the nerds against the jocks, and he said, “This ain’t no spelling bee.”
Sanders: That was probably the game I was worried about the most (against Cornell). And I think we beat them by like 20, or something like that.
Jones: Dick “Hoops” Weiss said to me after the Cornell game, “I’ve never seen a college team play better defense then they just did.” And it was at that point that you start thinking, “Ok, we’re going to win it.” Or you thought, “We’re going to play Duke at the Final Four.”
Sanders: After that, I was like, “Man, this is ours.” Clearly we weren’t talking about it, but I didn’t see another team that could beat us.
Jones: Then of course, West Virginia happens …
Ah, West Virginia, a game that will live in the hearts and minds of Kentucky fans for years to come.
In defense of the Mountaineers, they were a damn good team. West Virginia entered the game at 30-6 overall and were coming off a Big East title. Not to mention that they also had a couple of players who would at least get a cup of coffee in the NBA.
But they weren’t as talented as Kentucky.
Not that any of it mattered once the game tipped off. Because when it did, everyone came to a quick realization about West Virginia: It had the perfect amount of talent and experience to hang with Kentucky.
Not to mention the Mountaineers’ strength was aimed directly at Kentucky’s singular weakness.
Calipari: As we sat down before we got in the NCAA tournament, we knew that if we hit a bad shooting spell, we better hope it’s a team that we can beat anyway. It was one Achilles heel we had.
Harrellson: We knew we weren’t a great three-point shooting team. We really didn’t have that pure shooter that was going to go out there and every team was going to respect him.
Calipari: We knew, and we hoped it wouldn’t happen. And it did.
Harrellson: That West Virginia game, they put that zone on us, we had no idea what to do.
Patterson: They ran a zone and we decided to shoot the ball way too much. We weren’t known for shooting.
Krebs: We got down three or four points, and you would’ve thought we were down 15 or 20.
Jones: They just couldn’t hit a shot. You saw it, they just couldn’t hit a shot. They got open looks, every shot was open. They just missed all of them.
Tucker Max (best-selling author, Kentucky fan): They went cold against the exact team that could guard them. (West Virginia) had juniors and seniors, maybe not (guys who’d turn into) great NBA players, but guys who were going to play in the league. Old-man muscle guys.
Jones: West Virginia just did a great job of not letting them get to the basket. That’s one thing that team did great, get to the basket. They had Wall and Bledsoe, and they’d dish it off to Cousins, and they could post guys up, and none of that was working. West Virginia was basically like, “We’re going to give you open threes.” And they just could not make them.
Krebs: The biggest thing I remember from that game was in the first half, they only made three-pointers and free throws. There were no two-point baskets. It was a bizarre game.
Harrellson: At halftime, I think we were 0-for-20 from three, so we couldn’t throw a rock into the ocean.
At halftime I think we were 0 for 20 from three, so we couldn’t throw a rock into the ocean.
Calipari: Now you have to understand that the Cornell game, we missed 10 straight threes to end that game, and then 20 straight threes to start the next game. That’s 0-for-30. Now how do you go 0-for-30? But we did it. And we knew it could happen.
Patterson: That game particularly I wish Jodie had stayed.
Max: We had open threes all game, and I remember thinking, “If we still had Jodie Meeks …” That team with Jodie Meeks would’ve been like this year’s team. Or somewhere close.
Krebs: We went into halftime only down two, but it felt like it was 10. It was like we were in quicksand and couldn’t get out of it.
Orton: The best way to put it was it seemed like a nightmare, you know? It’s like when you’re in a nightmare fighting, fighting, and there’s nothing we could do.
Patterson: Everything that could possibly go wrong for us did in that game. And everything that could go right for them did.
Krebs: Every timeout in the second half, every time we’d try to run something, we’d run it to perfection, but the ball wouldn’t go in the basket. Then they’d go down, run 30 seconds off the clock and hit a fade-away three and they’d make it.
Padgett: As you see it going, and as you see it happening late in the second half, there’s some frustration building up because the guys know what kind of work they put in throughout the year, and to have the goal right in front of you, and to not be able to reach it, it’s tough.
Krebs: I felt like in timeouts, you had guys that were usually positive, not necessarily getting on people, but more like, “We’ve got to do this!” It was extra pandemonium, rather than calmness, like, “We’ve got this. We’re going to be fine.”
Bledsoe: We could make up all the excuses in the world, but they executed their job well. They were the better team that night.
Krebs: That’s where it felt like the finality of a postseason game got to us. Because every game that season if we got down six points with a minute left, it felt like we were going to win it.
That night, there would be no wild comeback victory. West Virginia went on to win 73-66, the finality of the season coming faster than anyone could’ve expected.
Emotions poured out in the postgame locker room.
Jones: I’ve been in a lot of losing locker rooms in the tournament. Never seen one sadder than that one.
Sanders: I had been through four season-ending games, but this one was to go to the Final Four. Plus knowing we had the team to win it? That locker room was silent.
I’ve been in a lot of losing locker rooms in the tournament. Never seen one sadder than that one.
Jones: That was the most devastated locker room I’ve ever seen. DeMarcus Cousins and John Wall were inconsolable. People talk about one-and-done, whatever, those guys were just inconsolable.
Sanders: It was like the whole locker room was frozen for like 30 minutes.
Patterson: Everyone was crying and sad and disappointed; just a real tough experience.
Sanders: Guys just sat there in their jerseys, they didn’t say a word, didn’t move, towels over their heads. They just didn’t say a word.
Jones: I vividly remember Patrick Patterson trying to get DeMarcus to stop crying so he could talk to the media. Ramon Harris had a towel over his head, with his jersey on, and would not look up at any point.
Newton: It was really, really difficult because we didn’t play well, we didn’t play our best game. If you play your best game and you lose, you can accept it. But we didn’t play our best game, and I think the kids knew it.
Wall: (We) didn’t play our best game. We’re still upset about that.
Krebs: It’s also extra hard to know that the season was ours to lose. It’s not like it was going to take amazing efforts, amazing feats of strength or athleticism to win certain games. We felt like, “We’ve just got to play our game and it’s ours.”
Newton: When you spend that much time together, and you work as hard as they worked, and you go through as much as they went through, you really do become a family. I think there was a sense in that locker room that we let each other down in some way.
Padgett: West Virginia had talent, but we had more. And we let one get away. And I don’t know that (winning that game) wouldn’t have led to a championship. If you’d beaten West Virginia, you probably would’ve won a championship.
Strickland: I think if we had gotten past that West Virginia game, we would’ve won the whole thing.
Max: It felt like that was a team of destiny that somehow ended up in the wrong universe. In every other alternate universe, that team wins the national championship. Just not the universe we live in.
Following the devastating loss, the team eventually returned to campus empty-handed, two wins short of its goal of a title.
The Wildcats also returned to a reality that no Kentucky team had dealt with before: a bunch of these guys wouldn’t be back the following season.
Harrellson: It really doesn’t hit you for the next day or two, you wake up and you don’t have practice, you don’t have games, it’s hard to accept when it first hits you. It takes a couple days to set in like, “Wow, it really is over.” Then it starts to set in, and hits you like, “These guys are going to be gone next year.”
Jones: You have to remember that this was pre-everyone leaving. Nowadays, when Kentucky loses, they know that Kentucky is going to lose a bunch of players. Back then, you just didn’t think about the notion of, “Next year’s team is going to be a completely different team.” That mindset hadn’t crept in yet.
Peevy: The two guys who we pretty much knew were leaving were Patrick and John Wall. Patrick had come back, he had graduated. John Wall was in discussion as the No. 1 pick in the draft. John was having difficulty just saying that, “It’s over.” He just didn’t want it to end.
Sanders: I’ll tell you what: All those guys contemplated coming back. Everybody (on the outside) said they were gone. Eric, John and DeMarcus, we used to go to get crab legs all the time. We’d grab lunch or grab dinner and they would talk about how much they loved Kentucky.
Peevy: DeMarcus had been telling us through the end of the SEC tournament and into the NCAA tournament, “Don’t recruit another big guy. I’m coming back.” He was convinced he was coming back.
Jones: No one will believe this, but DeMarcus wanted to come back, and Cal said, “You can’t.” Cal basically was like, “You have to go.”
No one will believe this, but DeMarcus wanted to come back, and Cal said, ‘You can’t.’ Cal basically was like, ‘You have to go.’
Peevy: I think Cal wanted to make sure DeMarcus knew what it would be. “If you want to come back, you better come back to work. If you’re not coming back to be the No. 1 pick in the draft next year, then you need to strike while the iron’s hot.”
Padgett: I think everybody knew that for sure Patrick, DeMarcus and John were going pro. And it was like, “Well, we’ll see with Eric. He’ll definitely test the waters, and Daniel will probably test the waters.” With his size and athleticism back then, he would probably test the waters.
Bledsoe: For me, I wasn’t in the position like John and them where I knew I was gone, that’d I’d be drafted in the first round or whatever.
Peevy: Eric Bledsoe, the thing with him was just that he didn’t believe. Cal, John Wall, they were always telling him that he was just as good as any of them. And he should be going in the draft, too.
Bledsoe: I was talking to Coach Cal, and he was telling me, “We’d love to have you back, but at the end of the day it’s your decision to make. You’ve got to do what’s best for you.” He was giving me guidance along the way.
Orton: For me, it was one of the hardest decisions of my life. It was harder than choosing schools.
Sanders: They truly, truly, truly loved Kentucky. That’s why I think you see them coming back all the time now. John’s back every year, DeMarcus is back every year, Eric comes back. They all come back.
In the end, NBA riches were too tempting to pass up for five of Kentucky’s underclassmen: junior Patrick Patterson and freshmen John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe and Daniel Orton. Add in departing seniors Ramon Harris, Perry Stevenson and Mark Krebs, and the reality was that Kentucky would have an almost entirely new team the following season.
Still, before the book closed on the 2009-10 Kentucky Wildcats, one final chapter had to be written.
It came at the 2010 NBA Draft, where history was made and where the foundation of everything that was to come for Kentucky was set.
Krebs: Coach Cal always said, “When the tide rises, all boats rise with it.” Essentially, if we win as a team, if we do what we’re supposed to do on the court, if we conduct ourselves the way we’re supposed to, and do all the stuff we’re supposed to do throughout the week, all the extra stuff will take care of itself.
Sanders: That first year, he set the record with five first-round (NBA) draft picks. That couldn’t have been a better time for him. In his first season to put Patrick Patterson and four freshmen in the first round, that just, that’s the bar right there that this can be done.
Krebs: That was crazy to me that all the little things he (Calipari) said came true. He’d say little things throughout the day, before practice. He’d say, “Patrick, if you keep doing what you’re doing, it’s going to pay off. Daniel, if you keep giving us good minutes it’s going to pay off.” And it actually did.
Calipari: What I said at the time, and people got really angry, but I said, “This could be the biggest moment in the history of our program, having five guys drafted in the first round.” People were mad because they said, well, “We didn’t win a national title.”
What I said at the time and people got really angry, but I said, ‘This could be the biggest moment in the history of our program,’ having five guys drafted in the first round.’ People were mad because they said, well, ‘We didn’t win a national title.’
Jones: When Cal said, “This is the greatest day in school history” there were a lot of people angry about that, myself included. I was like, “Come on Cal, you can’t really believe that.” And I still think that wasn’t correct, but I don’t think it was crazy wrong in hindsight. That day at the draft set the tone for everything he would do.
Peevy: What he was saying was, “The championship that we win will be because of this, this night.” And he ended up being a prophet. All the success that we’ve had as a program, that team laid a path.
Jones: Right around that time, he got commitments from Brandon Knight, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Anthony Davis. Those three guys, all of whom are NBA players, a couple of whom are star NBA players, committed within a few months of that NBA Draft and set the tone for the next couple years and the title that came after.
Patterson: Kids saw us and were like, “We want to go to Kentucky. We want to be John Wall or DeMarcus Cousins. We want to play for Coach Cal.”
Jones: Was it the most important day in the history of UK basketball? Probably not. But it was probably a lot more than people would’ve given it credit for at the time.
Calipari: And my point was that they had now changed the landscape of college basketball. They have, which was bigger than Kentucky.
Ah, there it is. The Wildcats changed the landscape of college basketball.
No longer were freshmen seen as “the bad guys,” the players who couldn’t be trusted or who only cared about their own agendas.
As it turned out, one-and-done players could come to a school, play hard, work as a team, go to class and win big.
As much as the Wildcats changed things around Kentucky and set the tone for all the success the team has had since, they really did change college basketball as well.
Calipari: I just looked at it after that year and said, “There is something we have to recognize.” The model has just changed. The 50-year model is no longer.
Strickland: As far as the freshmen, to have so many guys come in and play at one time, and play so well, that started the real one-and-done stuff. You had four guys leave. You started that trend of the one-and-done. Yeah we had Tyreke (Evans) and Derrick (Rose) (at Memphis), but to have four guys one-and-done? They started that.
Wall: I think our class, when we came in not a lot of people were leaving after their freshmen and sophomore year. A lot of people were juniors and seniors. And I think that ever since our class, our year we came out and did that with all those freshmen leaving, a lot more teams are starting to have a lot more freshmen.
Padgett: The most amazing thing that Cal’s done since he’s gotten there is, he’s had all these superstars, non-stop. And everyone’s like, “Oh, he’s got all the best players.” You know how hard it is to get five superstars, guys who’ve been The Man probably for their whole life, to get them to sacrifice for a team?
Newton: They put individual needs below team needs. They realized, “You know, if I do what this guy tells me to do, my dreams will come true.” And you know what? It played out.
They put individual needs below team needs. They realized, ‘You know, if I do what this guy tells me to do, my dreams will come true.’ And you know what? It played out.
Harris: It takes a minute to get everybody on the same page, but (eventually) everybody came together and said, “Let’s do something special. Let’s make history.” And when you put it like that, “Let’s make history,” that’s something no one can take away from you. When you’re dead and gone, no one can take it away from you.
Padgett: When it comes to the one-and-done, I don’t know what other groups have done. But this group, I felt like they did it the right way. They didn’t come through and take basket weaving. They came through took their classes and did a great job in the classroom. They all could’ve skipped out (and left school as soon as they declared). They came back and finished up their classes through the semester.
Peevy: One thing that came up a lot during that year was trying to debunk the myth of why they choose Kentucky. (A lot of the media was) trying to turn us into this one-and-done factory.
Wall: In the back of our minds, a lot of us knew we could be gone in one year. But our mindset was to go in there and do whatever we can to try and win a championship, and do everything in the classroom and outside the classroom.
Peevy: John Wall in that second semester, I think he either had a 4.0 or 3.8 (GPA), in a year where he was the one guy on that team that knew he was probably pretty much going to leave. The guy got his work done. That’s part of it.
Wall: Even after the season was over, we were still doing schoolwork and stuff. Guys stayed in school.
Peevy: We immediately debunked that myth, that they’re only going to be here a short time and they don’t care about this university.
Calipari: My point here is, we’ve had 19 guys in five years (go to the NBA), and we’ll probably have five, six or seven from this year’s team. And those kids have reached their dreams and not at the expense of academics, not at the expense of hurting the basketball program.
Peevy: There’s no doubt in my mind that the 2010 team is the reason we’re enjoying all the success that we are today.
Calipari: If they don’t allow this to happen, the players, it doesn’t happen.
Strickland: That started everything.
Patterson: When it’s all said and done we are the group that turned Kentucky around.
Strickland: You go, besides the Fab Five and look back to have so many special players come to one program and say, “Forget it, I just want to be here, I don’t care who’s here, we can do this.” The Fab Five was one, but for this era, they were those guys who came in and played together.
Harris: I think we did something special. I think we could’ve done more, but you always think like that when you lose earlier than your goals. I really think that year really put Kentucky back on the map, I think made Kentucky a higher standard of basketball. And I think you look at Kentucky basketball now and it’s crazy.
Sanders: The year before they went to the NIT, and we feel like we hit rock bottom. For a team to bounce back, become No. 1 team in the country, the No. 1 recruiting class. Even though we didn’t win a National Championship, reach our ultimate goal, we revived Kentucky basketball.