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Duty calls a son of Kentucky home to the heartland!

by J.W. Miller on 12/10/18

A crisis of immense proportions has arisen in Kentucky, and it is the duty of her native sons to come home. That’s why I am packing up the buggy and heading to the heartland this week. In case you live in a cave or a barn without a basketball hoop nailed above the door, you are certainly aware of the University of Kentucky’s 84-83 overtime loss to Seton Hall at Madison Square Garden on Saturday. The loss put the Cats at 7-2 and a likely drop from their No. 9 pregame slot into the terrible teens when the new polls come out. 

And it is up to me, a faithful son of the Bluegrass and official Maker’s Mark ambassador, to do all I can to fix things. I know I probably sound like the Saints player who, flying back with the team from a road game, was informed of a disturbing crisis that had hit a part of the country. The player rushed to the front of the plane and emphatically told Coach Bum Phillips: "Coach, we oughta get this plane on the ground and find out what's going on!" 

But after I did my part to solve the six-quarter Saints’ offensive malaise Sunday (with appropriate assistance from Taysom Hill's blocked punt), I now turn my talents northward to help cure the strange inconsistency that threatens the Wildcats’ goal of a ninth NCAA basketball championship. That was almost a given before the first game of the season and enough to entice me to put down a Benjamin at the local sports wagering parlor which is now completely legal in my little piece of the Gulf South. 

I have written that once Mississippi legalized sports gaming at their coast casinos, I rushed over and put down wagers on my three favorite candidates for temporary immortality. The Red Sox complied, winning the World Series at 4-1 odds, so in a sense I am playing with house money. A bet on Kentucky to win the NCAA championship was also going off at 4-1, the lowest pre-season odds for any contender. (Yes, the Saints are my third bet!) But the first tip that things might not go my way for UK was the first center court tip-off against Duke. I am often more stubborn than slow on the uptake, but it did not take a genius to realize that the subsequent 34-point ass-kicking might suggest that my Wildcats are less than an even match with the hated Blue Devils and probably a few others. 

It was the type of humbling that was not expected after Kentucky demolished four international teams in a pre-season sojourn to Paradise Island in the Bahamas. Those three matches, which made the Wildcats appear ready for the Golden State Warriors, now raise suspicions that their opponents were shanghaied from the armada of cruise ships that ring the harbor. One source had the temerity to suggest that the games were part of the cruise ship options that include packages for full internet, bar tab and tours of local places of interest. Who would have thought that the box that listed “recreational diversion at the island’s largest sports arena” would allow you to suit up against the Kentucky Wildcats? 

The Bahamas blowouts were long forgotten after the Duke debacle and even during parts of the next seven home games, all Kentucky victories against such juggernauts as Winthrop, Monmouth and the YMCA of Rabbit Hash, Ky. Big Blue Nation expected the same level of opposition when the Cats went on the road Saturday to face Seton Hall, a team that even hated Louisville had beaten. But a strange inspiration overtakes Wildcat opponents who consider UK the closest they will ever get to the Final Four. They begin playing like Loyola of Chicago at crunch time. 

Seton Hall used an assortment of three-point shots thrown from various locations inside Madison Square Garden and outside on 34th Street, the last of which in regulation gave the Pirates a three-point lead with 1.1 second remaining. The generous officials must have felt sorry for the visitors and put the clock at 1.5 seconds, just enough time for Kentucky’s Keldon Johnson to throw up his own prayer from the mid-court stripe that went cleanly through the nets and sent the game into overtime. Surely, that was the omen the Wildcats needed that would assure victory. Even the members of Big Blue Nation who filled the Garden turned their conversations to dinner at Elaine’s or Mama Leone’s? 

Coach John Calipari must have been in on that conversation because his instructions to his team before the extra period did not include anything about defense. Seton Hall scored the first two baskets of the OT and then used another blind-shot three-pointer with 8 seconds remaining to send the Wildcats and their following back home in tears. Calipari, who doesn’t count wins or losses until March, said his team needed a game like that and they would be fine when they needed to be. I’m a trusting guy, but I’m going to see for my own self when Kentucky hosts Utah Saturday at Rupp Arena. I can yell and scream all I want at the TV – as the Lovely Miss Jean will confirm - but I believe the players will react far more constructively to my basso-profundo instructions in person. 

In case you think my trip is strictly humanitarian in nature, know that I am appearing at the Scott County Historical Society in Georgetown on Thursday night for a talk and book-signing of my current book, “Integrated: the Lincoln Institute, Basketball and a Vanishing Tradition.” Basketball might not be as important in December, but my book makes a great Christmas gift. In case you were wondering! 

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