To be honest, I came in with lowered expectations.
A game between the most successful program in college basketball's recent history (and my favorite team in sports) and a program that looks primed to rule the immediate future. North Carolina and Kentucky. Two of college basketball's titans for the past 30 years, going head-to-head on national television. A blockbuster event, sure, but given the context, it'd take a whole lot for the hoops to match the hype.
I was prepared to come away a little disappointed. But that didn't happen.
(And for the record, my anticipated disappointment had nothing to do with my longstanding Carolina fandom and the reality that, you know, there was no way we were going to win that game. Really, this in no way affected my outlook on things. Walking into the arena, I did NOT, in any way, hang my head and say, "Okay, it's time for John Wall to punch me in the stomach.")
Even with Carolina's loss, the whole thing went much better then I ever imagined. People say Rupp Arena is a basketball cathedral, and I can testify to that end. The students certainly lived up to the hype:
But more than that, the rest of the crowd was just as great. Add on 24,000 screaming adults to the above photo, and that's what we were dealing with in Lexington, Kentucky. Literally from the second I walked into Rupp, it was freaking bedlam. Like, unadulterated madness. Not in the Duke, ZANY Cameron Crazies-sense of the word, but a truly bizarre atmosphere. I was shoulder-to-shoulder with grandmothers shooting me dirty looks for my North Carolina jersey, and 17-year old girls shouting their heads off from start to finish. And peppered in, of course, were thousands upon thousands of grown men shouting just as loud as anyone.
It was equal parts terrifying (as Carolina fan) and exhilarating (as a basketball fan). Just out of this world. Most college basketball is just looked upon as a game, even at a place like Carolina. People love it, but with perspective. At Duke, it's an opportunity to get on ESPN and show the world that you study AND have fun AND love basketball soooo much (what? you thought I was going to stop taking shots at Duke?).
At Kentucky, it was more like..."basketball is life here, John Wall is God, and Carolina can go to hell." How can you not love that?
One thing was kind of creepy, though: every few minutes leading up to the game, some Kentucky fan would walk up to me and just laugh. Cackle, to be exact. Just stand there for like five seconds, staring and laughing. It wasn't really collegial laughter, I don't think. It was more... "Heh heh heh, if we were somewhere else, I would beat the living sh-- out of you and then go have a long laugh about it. Watch yourself, fella." So yeah, I watched myself.
And as long as I avoided being beaten to death behind some imaginary Kentucky woodshed, the crowd was just amazing. There are really only two factors that matter to me when talking about sports fans: noise and knowledge. And the Kentucky fans were LOUD, and during timeouts, most of the discussion I heard was legitimately knowledgeable. Considering I was surrounded by adults with jobs and families and all sorts of other responsibilities that may detract from their "sports time," it was pretty great to see people that clearly knew their team so well.
In my mind, it's a thousand times cooler to be surrounded by a bunch of people that aren't there to get caught by ESPN cameras, but because it's one of the few things in life that's been an absolute mainstay. Through generations of families, people have been going nuts over Kentucky basketball, and that's why the grown men, women, 17-year-old daughters and 70-something grandparents still make weekly pilgrimages to Rupp Arena. Because they live and breathe Kentucky basketball, and it's something they've been doing for years and years.
People talk about the pageantry of college sports, but ultimately, fans like that are what make it so special.
Now, as for the game...
I love Carolina, but man, this pregame floor-diving routine sure reminds me of floor-slapping.
Nevertheless, when the game opened, the Tar Heels jumped out to an early lead, and for a few fleeting moments, I thought we had a chance. It was cute, in hindsight. The fans around me even pretended to be nervous, just to make me feel better. And then John Wall happened.
Let's put it this way: a month ago I wrote the most hyperbolic, deifying feature you could possibly conceive. About a 19-year-old kid. That night, in his first-ever game, he hit a game-winning jumper. And today, I'm somehow more convinced of John Wall's talent than I was then. Kentucky has two other freshman that are really, really good, and Carolina has a few that are pretty talented themselves. What's striking, though, is how much BETTER John Wall is than those players. Have I mentioned his nickname is "God"?
He's not so much a freshman as an NBA player playing college basketball. Carolina's Larry Drew vs. John Wall was like pitting a golden retriever against a cheetah. It's not the dog's fault when that fight turns into a slaughter. It's just... nature. Do you ever wonder what it would have looked like had Lebron gone to college? This is it. And it's funny.
Because college basketball is so predicated on TEAM, that the collective impulse is to downplay the exploits of any individual. That's why, on a national level, you don't hear that many people touting the whole "John Wall is AMAZING" narrative. "He's a good player, sure, but what about Kentucky? That's what matters here, right guys? Right?" Uhh... Wrong.
Sometimes, believe it or not, individual talent is what captures people's minds.
And the best part about it is that Kentucky fans, literally the most traditional bunch of college basketball fans you could ever find, totally get it with Wall. They have an All-American power forward (Patrick Patterson) and two other superstar freshman (Demarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe), and yet, Wall already occupies a completely separate place in their hearts. It's barely December, and the crowd already gasps at his every move.
When other Wildcats score, it's excitement, but when John Wall scores, it's ecstasy. Almost like a World Cup game. With Wall, it's like they're cheering partly out of gratitude that they get to root for someone so outlandishly talented. During a timeout in the firsthalf, a man next to me said softly to his wife, "I swear to you, that's the best point guard I've seen here in my whole life."
And of course, after the above dunk, the crowd went absolutely NUTS. After Carolina's early lead, all it took was consecutive baskets from Wall, including that dunk, and you couldn't hear yourself think in Rupp Arena. Really. It was deafening in the worst kind of ways for a Carolina fan. The Heels led 9-2 early on, and the next time I looked up, they were down by double digits. All told, Kentucky went on 28-2 run, pretty much ending the game in the first half.
But then, when he limped off the court and into the locker room at the beginning of the second half, it cast a little bit of a pall over the crowd. Not full-on panic, and everyone was still very much engaged in the game, but at timeouts, you kept seeing people nervously glancing over at the Kentucky's tunnel. "Where's Wall?"
"Is he okay, do you think?"
"What happened to him?"
That's all you kept hearing. And you could see the change in the Kentucky players, too. Which is why, for ten minutes, we got to watch a collge basketball game, instead of a college game being dominated by two NBA players (Wall and Patrick Patterson). Suddenly, Carolina had a chance, and Kentucky was relying on Eric Bledsoe at point guard. Like that, Carolina closed the gap and started hanging around with the Wildcats.
And let's be clear: this had nothing to with Kentucky's talent. Because even without Wall, UK is more talented than Carolina. But because John Wall is SO GOOD, the other players have already gotten used to deferring to him and letting him be the catalyst on offense. His seven assists on Saturday don't really do it justice; until you watch a full game of his, it's impossible to describe just how many open shots he creates for Kentucky. He IS their offense.
So it's no surprise that when he left the game, Kentucky's other players looked confused and unsure of themselves. There were turnovers, missed layups, and just generally shoddy play for a solid ten minutes of the second half, all because losing John Wall took everyone out of their comfort zone. He's that good, and they rely on him that much.
With that, I got another few moments where it seemed like Carolina had a chance. And then John Wall returned. And even with him operating at 80%, Kentucky was able to weather the storm from Carolina. Again, I expected all of this, so it's not a surprise, or even a disappointment. A good game, Carolina fought hard, and John Wall was amazing. But what I hadn't prepared for was the Kentucky fans. That was the best part.
As the game wound down, you could sense that the crowd was happy not just about the win, but a return to relevance. And these people deserve it. It odd to say they "deserve" anything since this is a fanbase blessed with more wins than anyone in college basketball history; but they do. People that care this much about basketball should have a Top 10 team. It's just good for the sport.
Everyone in that stadium LOVES basketball, and the whole experience down there is a tribute to what this game can mean to people. Maybe it makes me less of a Carolina fan, but I didn't mind watching Kentucky win. Tar Heel fans are still basking in the glow of one of the most dominant teams in recent memory. UNC kicked ass last year; I'm still a little delirious about it. Losing a game in early December just doesn't hurt as much. A good learning experience, if anything, and they fought hard in the second half.
And watching the Kentucky fans go nuts was just outstanding. Of course, this could be because of one of my travel companions. My 10-year-old cousin was at his first UK game, and by the end of it, he'd spent all of his allowance on different gear, and was taunting me to no end about Carolina's loss. But it didn't really matter, because sometimes, it's cool to watch other people get excited:
That's what happened on Saturday. An entire fanbase realized that, officially now, Kentucky is BACK. And the title for college basketball's preeminent program is suddenly in question. Make no mistake: Roy Williams and John Calipari are the two best coaches in the country, and right now, Kentucky and North Carolina are the two best programs. This rivalry is only going to get more intense. It was fun to watch Kentucky win on Saturday, but if Carolina loses next year, it won't be as heartwarming.
The Wildcats are a worthy adversary again; it's good to have them back. Their fans span generations; and just when you think a rivalry's dead, John Wall comes to Kentucky, my 10 year-old cousin falls in love with UK, and suddenly John Calipari has the Wildcats looking like the hottest program in college basketball. Next year, Harrison Barnes comes to UNC, and who knows what'll happen?
And on Sunday, I looked out and saw the snowman my other young cousin had built:
For fans on both sides, it really will go on forever. And that's why college basketball is so great.