Working for the Vanderbilt team, I'm supposed to hate Kentucky. I do hate Kentucky. But I also love Kentucky and am in awe of Kentucky. What John Calipari has done at UK in 4 years is truly remarkable, the raw talent on the teams he has put together is off the charts and unlike anything college basketball has ever seen. His ability to reload and continue to attract the best in college basketball is amazing to see and it has created an aura around a program already steeped in mystique.
The fact that Coach Cal so brazenly takes advantage of the one-and-done system and flouts conventional wisdom about team building and "winning with program players" is fun to see. He doesn't care what people think of him or his methods, he is going to keep doing what he is doing because it works (with this year being an exception) and that is why I love Kentucky. They know that everybody hates them and wants to knock them from their perch and they just don't care. They relish their role as the empire of the SEC and they dare people to stand in their way, and that is what makes beating them so unbelievably rewarding.
I arrived at Vanderbilt the same time Coach Cal arrived at UK. We were part of the same recruiting class and the matchups versus Kentucky have been my favorite games every year, particularly during my first three seasons. Each of Cal's first three years, he took UK to at least the Elite Eight, they were consistently one of the best teams in the country, but so were we. They had NBA level talent, but so did we. Those games my first three years were unforgettable because we were so good and they were just a little bit better, but our guys and our team wanted nothing more than to knock them down. We felt we were as good as they were, but because they were Kentucky they got more recognition than we did.
The first game versus UK occurred my freshman year at Rupp Arena and we got beat pretty soundly. UK was coming off their first loss of the season earlier that week to South Carolina and they weren't going to lose again. It wasn't our finest moment. The second game of the season though was one of the most incredible games I have ever seen in person and the night before the game, due to the fact that none of our full time managers were around to do it (I was part-time as a freshman), I was asked to let the team in to our gym for shootaround. I was giddy at the opportunity, and described it in this story for Dime Magazine, and have excerpted some of it here:
" I only managed part-time as a freshman, but the weekend we were scheduled to play Kentucky, none of the full-time managers were able to let them into the gym for a shootaround. They asked me if I could do it. My heart probably skipped a beat.
This was the team with John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson, No. 1 in the nation, with John Calipari as the head coach. This was the best team in college basketball, one with gobbles of NBA talent and here I was letting them into the gym. I kept pinching myself at the thought as I waited for the team to arrive, and when they finally did I was starstruck. Coach Cal shook my hand and then asked if I could give him a tour of the locker room and I just nodded my head, and then led him into our locker room.
Following that, I went up to the court to make sure the team had everything they needed, and Erin Andrews was waiting there to interview some of their players about the game. Right as I first saw Erin Andrews, I remember turning around and seeing DeMarcus Cousins roll in to the gym with huge glasses, sweatpants rolled up above his knees, and flip-flops with knee-high socks, plopping down to be interviewed by Erin Andrews. At that moment I was thinking, Cousins either has more swag than I could ever imagine or was not aware he was being interviewed by Erin freakin’ Andrews. I think it was a combination of the two, but either way that experience was one of the coolest of my life."
It was truly awesome to have been able to interact with that team, even momentarily. That was a Friday night and the game was scheduled to start at 5 PM on Saturday but many Vandy students had been camping out for admission the night before. Admission to all games is free for Vandy students, so they were camping out for a good seat. I got on line early in the morning and waited until 3:30 with some of my good friends until the gates open. Within two minutes of opening, the student section was entirely full.
The hour and a half between going into the arena and the game starting felt like it dragged on forever. There was a palpable tension in the arena and just so much nervous energy going around. We were taking on this team of all stars with first place in the SEC on the line, and Dick Vitale and Erin Andrews were calling the game. It was a huge opportunity for us and the fans were in a state of hysteria even before the game started.
Memorial Gymnasium has a reputation as being one of the loudest in the country and it was especially loud on this day. Throughout the game you could barely hear yourself think, let alone hear the person next to you. It was a back and forth game and both teams were struggling to score. Everybody in the building wanted the team to win so badly and it was an incredible battle out there. Each possession was laced with tension and excitement, and everybody was just completely engrossed in the action.
Ultimately, we were down by two with a couple of seconds left in the game. We were out of timeouts, but after I believe Eric Bledsoe hit a free throw, Coach Cal called a timeout which allowed us to set up the inbounds play. After the timeout, Darshawn McClellan got the ball to inbound it and he threw a three quarter court pass to AJ Ogilvy. COMPLETE! AJ caught the ball around the three point line, and spinned in toward the middle of the floor in the foul line area and put up a 15 foot floater to tie that was just wide. It was like the air had been sucked out of the gym, and it was an emotionally draining experience to be a part of, even just as a spectator.
The next year, Kentucky came to play in Memorial for the first game and that was another incredible show. Before the game started though, UK assistant John Robic came to me with a unique request. He said that his wife was a Vanderbilt alum and despite his employment with UK she wanted a Vanderbilt basketball T-shirt. That began an exchange of t-shirts each year between me and Coach Robic.
Now to the game, it was a tightly contested game, but John Jenkins just willed us to victory that day. He was unstoppable. John played all but 30 seconds of the game, and when one of our assistants reminded Coach how long he had been in for, Coach told him, "John can rest tomorrow". He carried the team on his back shooting 11 of 17 and scoring 32 points. I was so proud of him because he worked so hard for a day like that and John always had a chip on his shoulder when we played UK. He hated how much recognition all their guys got and felt like he was consistently overlooked by people in comparison to the guys at UK, so that was a special moment for him.
We later lost 68-66 at Rupp Arena in that year, but my junior year was the most fun to compete against UK. Like my freshman year, that team was loaded with Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Terrence Jones leading the way. They were an unbelievable team to watch not just because of their individual talent but their ability to put aside their egos for the greater good of the team.
The first game was played at Memorial, and I again let the team into Memorial the night before the game. I was still in awe of them, and Anthony Davis was a lot taller than he looked on TV, here I was just casually interacting with the future number one pick. It was sweet. During the game, in the first half, UK took a huge lead, and we came back in the second half but it wasn't enough, losing 69 to 63.
My parents and sister were in town for the game and were staying at the same hotel as UK (the Marriott right by the gym) and I went there with them after the game and it was a scene. There were fans camped out all over the lobby just looking for a glimpse of their favorite player or Coach Cal. It was chaos, and it was all being monitored by Sandy Bell who essentially oversees the basketball program for the athletic department. I talked to her and asked her what it was like travelling with the team and she said, "It's like the Beatles, our fans are rabid, they just love these guys so much. It's hard for these guys to have a normal road trip experience because everybody wants to meet them."
Later in the season we went to Rupp and that was my first personal experience there. We lost the game but I was astounded by the arena and the atmosphere. Rupp is old and dumpy, but it seats 22,000 people who absolutely love their team. It's not that UK fans are the most rowdy or rabid bunch (I think Arkansas and Florida fans are more vocal), but the sheer number of them is overwhelming.
It is 22,000 people wearing blue and while the fans aren't necessarily screaming the whole time, when UK is struggling, the entire building rises up as one and it is like you are competing against not just the five guys on the court but the entire arena. It is a hard feeling to explain but you almost feel like the fans are injecting their passion and will into the team during certain moments, it's like they are refusing to let them lose, no matter what. When the fans start standing and cheering during crunch time, they can almost will the team to victory and it is a magical thing to witness, even if you are on the other side.
The third game of last season came in the SEC Tournament Championship. To be honest, I didn't think we were going to win. We were good, but they were great. Trying to beat that team was like trying to ride a bicycle up a steep hill. You may get close to the top of the hill, but not quite over it each time you try and that is how it felt in the first two games versus UK that season. It felt like no matter what happened they were still going to win, and that is how I felt late in the SEC Championship as well. The game was back and forth pretty much throughout and New Orleans Arena was essentially Rupp South, filled entirely with blue and small section of Black and Gold. The way Kentucky fans travel is amazing.
We were down by 5 with just over 4 minutes left and I just didn't think we would get it done. They were just too good but I think the moment I knew we were going to win was when Kedren Johnson hit a reverse layup to put us up 2 with a minute and a half left. It was a huge shot for a freshman and at that moment it was like we had finally climbed over that hill. We were on top and we didn't just beat anybody, we beat Kentucky. And not just any Kentucky team, but that Kentucky team. It was an incredibly special day and moment to be a part of.
This year, both teams had down years so the rivalry wasn't as intense as in years past (though it was great to knock them from NCAA Tournament contention), but there were still some good memories. There was the time when Willie Cauley Stein slid halfway across the floor at Memorial and I had to wipe up his sweat for about two minutes, after which I received a standing ovation. Or the time the night before the game, when Coach Robic said to me, "you're still here?" and I replied, "yeah, we don't have a one and done program for managers here" and Coach Cal chuckled and smiled at my joke.
Overall, Kentucky is unbelievable. The support the fans have for their team is unrivaled by any fan base in America. It is simply remarkable and the program continues to churn out ridiculous loads of NBA talent. I think I figured out that by the time Jon Hood is done playing after next year, he will have played with 25, TWENTY-FIVE NBA players in his 5 years at UK (John Wall, Eric Bledsoe, Daniel Orton, DeMarcus Cousins, Patrick Patterson, DeAndre Liggins, Enes Kanter, Josh Harrellson, Darius Miller, Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb, Michael Kidd Gilchrist, Anthony Davis, Marquis Teague, Nerlens Noel, Archie Goodwin, Willie Cauley Stein, Alex Poythress and then the 6 McDonald's All-Americans coming in next year. THAT. IS. ABSURD. And that is also what makes beating UK so rewarding, it is like beating the Yankees. So while I always hate UK as a fan, playing them and observing their program over the past 4 years have provided some of my best memories as manager, so I will always be grateful that the team got the chance to compete against them year in and year out.