John Calipari

It’s the culture John Calipari brought to Lexington three years ago when Mitch Barnhart formally introduced him as the new head coach at the University of Kentucky. Cal recruits only the best of the best, the top talent in the country, and like young basketball nomads, they set up camp in Wildcat Lodge and are gone before you can say, “Hey, can I have your autograph?” It’s something Kentucky fans have gotten used to in the John Calipari era and Big Blue Nation has grown to be more than content with its short-lived, but passionate admiration of these idol-like student-athletes. Anyone outside of the Bluegrass just can’t comprehend. Outsiders wonder how a fanbase can connect with its stars when they’re only in town for a couple of seasons. They ask how UK fans can become so emotionally attached to a group of guys who, as soon as they step on campus, are expected to pack up and leave just nine months later. They question Cal’s “player first” ways and criticize, no, condemn the way he runs his program. Again, the outsiders don’t get it.

Tuesday night was just another stop on the carousel of talent that passes through Lexington, only this one hit a little harder than in year’s past. Kentucky fans said goodbye to the school’s largest group of early draft entrants, the guys who delivered Lexington its first banner since ’98, and the ones Big Blue Nation undoubtedly love the most. With all due respect to the two memorable UK teams before them, the 2011-2012 Kentucky Wildcats are number one in our hearts, thanks to an unforgettable ride with countless highs, very few lows, and “One Shining Moment” in the end.

I don’t know if it’s just me or if it’s a common feeling across the Bluegrass, but it’ll be a long time before all of this sinks in. I was in New Orleans and watched them cut down the nets, but I still don’t think it has hit me. I watched all five starters announce their departures, but it still hasn’t sunk in that I’ll never see that team again. It could be next week, it could be next year, it could be ten years from now, but one day we’re going to look back in amazement at how unbelievable and incredible these past fews months were as Kentucky basketball fans. College basketball hasn’t seen many seasons like the one we just experienced and it’ll probably be a long, long time before it sees one again. And on Tuesday night, at a cheap table on the practice court of the Joe Craft Center, the starting five that made it all happen announced that it was all they needed and it’s time to move on. What a ride.

*** Starts crying, grabs a box of Kleenexes and opens a tub of Ben & Jerry’s ***

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Coach Cal had the honorable duty of announcing the decisions of his five star underclassmen, and he did so by tugging on our heart strings when breaking the news. As he sat at the table with Davis, Jones, and Lamb to his right, and MKG and Teague to his left, Cal turned to the pack of three and announced that they have decided to enter their names into the draft. Kentucky fans everywhere immediately let out a sigh of “COULD IT BE???”, assuming he would then turn to his left and announce the return of Kidd-Gilchrist and Teague. But seconds later, with a smirk on his face, Cal announced that the two players to his left will also be entering the draft. It was a cold-blooded move by Cal. You can’t play with our emotions like that.

There is a minimum of $3.4 million waiting for him in his first year at the next level, but leaving Kentucky was still a difficult decision for Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. MKG said he was the last of the five players to decide on leaving, and it wasn’t until last Thursday when he had a long talk with his family that he knew he’d be leaving. He said his mother was pushing hard for him to return for a sophomore season and he was a lot closer to going that route than anyone expected. But in the end, he had to go against his mother and make his own decision. “I had to live my dream,” he said.

While Kidd-Gilchrist took his time to mull it over, the other four guys pretty much knew it was time to leave as soon as the final buzzer sounded to end the season. With ‘No. 1 Greater’ hats on their heads and nothing left to accomplish, they all knew it was time to move on to the next phase of their basketball lives. You can’t blame them for that; they delivered what was expected of them. But had Kentucky not brought home the hardware, it would’ve been a different story. Kidd-Gilchrist even said he probably would’ve come back if they had gone home from the Final Four empty-handed. As much as I’d love to see him in Kentucky blue for another 30+ games, I’ll take the banner that he and his teammates hung in Rupp Arena over a sophomore season.

Did anyone believe Anthony Davis when he said he didn’t make his decision until Monday night? I would never call him a liar, but I have my doubts about that being the timeframe around his decision to leave. With the white-on-white Bentley talk on Jimmy Kimmel and telling reporters his mother has been pointing out houses she likes, I think his mind was made up before the first snow fell in Lexington last winter.

Davis did, however, say it wasn’t as easy to leave as everyone assumed. He said he loved being a collegeand he’s really going to miss everything about UK. He followed that up later by saying, “I am going to be rich.”

These guys speak a lot about their close relationships and it really showed the most when Michael Kidd-Gilchrist went out of his way to bring up Darius Miller, who was out on his autograph tour when the five underclassmen announced Tuesday night. Miller could’ve easily been forgotten in all the hoopla surrounding the younger guys, but MKG couldn’t let their big night end without talking about how much they appreciate Darius as a friend, teammate, and leader. Marquis Teague described this group the best: “Brotherhood.”

*** Blows nose and then shovels another bite of ice cream. ***

If you didn’t think was possible to be any more excited about Nerlens Noel, wait until you hear what Anthony Davis told reporters on Tuesday night. When talking about his successor in the paint, Davis said he believes Nerlens Noel will be a better shot blocker than he was at Kentucky. He said Noel will have to work on keeping balls in play, rather than swatting them into the crowd, but he is much better at deflecting shots with his off-hand. Hearing Davis say Noel will be better is a scary thought for anyone on Kentucky’s schedule next season. It is hard to imagine a better shot blocker than Anthony Davis. I’ve created video game characters with less of an impact on games.

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The two new Wildcats have said since day one that they’re out to win a title at Kentucky and anything else will be a disappointment.

Speaking of ESPN’s coverage, let’s talk about how absurd it is that the “Worldwide Leader In Sports” dedicated three of its outlets — ESPNNews, ESPNU, and ESPN3 — to covering a Tuesday night press conference at the Joe Craft Center in Lexington, KY. I don’t think you’d see that anywhere else in college basketball (except MAYBE one of those Carolina schools) and it just shows how big Kentucky basketball really is. I’m sure it didn’t go unnoticed to young high school basketball stars all over the country, either. Not only did Calipari send his starting five off to become millionaires but he got a free primetime infomercial out of the deal too. “Hey, kids. Watch this. We’re sending five underclassmen to the NBA and ESPN dedicated a show to it.”

Still no basketball updates from Anthony Bennett Watch. Although he did tweet that he feels like he is “about to throw up, for real.” That might have something to do with a tweet from Monday saying he didn’t get his Chipotle. We’ll continue to keep eyes on his every move.

On the same day we said goodbye to the starting five from the 2011-2012 season, Kentucky basketball also parted ways with Rod Strickland, when he took a job as an assistant under Larry Brown in the new regime at SMU. Strickland came to Kentucky with Calipari as an assistant in 2009 but was demoted to an administrative position with the team after being popped for a DUI shortly after the end of his first season. Regardless of his job title, the former NBA star point guard played a vital role in the progression of Kentucky’s line of star guards from the John Calipari Era. His contribution to the program will be missed.

That’ll do it for now.

Wednesday, we move on.