If you didn’t already know, I bleed (Kentucky) blue. I follow my team all season long, and if I can’t catch a game, I’m on my phone checking the scores to see what my Wildcats are doing. They have really improved over the course of this season, and I’ve been really proud of them all year. They started off pretty strong, but had a little stretch where they weren’t playing as well. Coach Cal did a great job of getting them back to playing some great basketball…and at the right time of year. Plus, the kid Tyler Ulis is having one of those unbelievable, player-of-the-year kinds of seasons. You can tell that he is a great teammate and leader on this team.
So when people ask me who I have winning it all, the answer is simple: my pick is ALWAYS Kentucky. My heart always wins the battle with my head when it comes to who will win the NCAA National Championship. What can I say…I’m a homer. I may be from Chicago, but Lexington will always have a special place in my heart. Truth is, it’s all about playing your best basketball at the right time of year, and I think they are playing great basketball. Seeding and match-ups are important too, but the key is to put together the best six-game stretch of your season. And then you need a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work. I’m always rooting for Kentucky to win, so obviously that’s who I’m picking as this year’s champion.
This time of the year is special to me. It's when my basketball juices start flowing. Basketball reaches its highest levels right about now, and it all starts with March Madness. The NBA season is hectic. Thankfully there are games on all day, so my teammates and I absolutely plan to find time to watch and follow our schools. Everyone has filled out their brackets and are waiting to brag about their school or ability to pick winners. It's like our early training to become GM's or coaches. But just like the rest of the fans out there, our brackets are usually busted by the end of the first round lol. We are constantly talking about our teams, and there is definitely some trash talking involved, especially when there are head-to-head match ups between our respective schools. We’re competitive by nature, so we’re always interested to see which of our teammates has the best brackets and whose college teams are still standing. Guys love to hate on my Cats, hoping that we don’t get the chance to win it all…again. But I look at that as a form of respect because we’ve been there so much lol.
When it comes to my own March Madness experiences, they were nothing short of unbelievable. I was fortunate enough to play in three National Championships, two of which we won. I always look back and think about how blessed I am. When our team was watching Selection Sunday, it was more about watching to see what region they’d make us a 1 seed in, as opposed to hoping that we got in like most schools. It was a testament to our hard work, great coaching and talent. But we didn’t take it for granted. We realized that all it took was one game, one slip-up, and the season was over. When you’re at Kentucky, nobody celebrates a Sweet 16 or an Elite 8 victory. We were locked in and focused. It was Championship or nothing. Not to say that it's a bad season if we don't win it all; we just have higher expectations because of our rich tradition. We understood that it took six games to win a Championship, so we were locked in for six games, but approached them one at a time.
In 1996 I won my first NCAA Championship. We had a ton of talent on that team. Maybe one of the best teams of all-time considering how many guys played in the NBA from that roster. Can't believe that was 20 years ago and that I'm still playing smh lol. I learned a lot about what it took to become a champion during my freshman year with that group. I had great veterans ahead of me who taught us young guys about preparation, focus, hard work, the importance of staying ready. They laid the groundwork and taught us what it took to be the best. I didn’t play much, but I had the chance to get out there every now and then to see and feel what championship basketball was all about. It also helped me realize what I had to do if I wanted to win another one and keep our tradition strong.
In the following season in 1997, we had another great year that got us back into the Championship game in Indianapolis at the RCA Dome. University of Minnesota gave us one of our most challenging and physical games in the Final Four that year; so tough of a game that Ron Mercer had full body cramps at the end of the night. His cramps were so bad that we weren't sure he could play in the Championship game a day later. But like a trooper, he played and put us in position to repeat. We didn't win it all that year. That overtime loss to Arizona still haunts me because I felt like we should have won that game. That night, Jason Terry, Miles Simon, Mike Bibby and Michael Dickerson got the best of us. I say we should replay that game today to see who would win now lol.
We got back there my junior year in 1998, and I’ll tell you, that was an extremely tough championship to win. The summer before, Coach Pitino left to coach the Boston Celtics. C.M. Newton hired one of Coach P's former assistants, Tubby Smith, who was coaching in the SEC at Georgia at the time. His system was similar, but his coaching style was different from Coach P. A lot of the talking heads wrote us off. What they didn't understand is that we were a well-coached team with veteran leadership that knew what it took to win. Tubby didn’t know us well, and all we knew about him was that his Georgia teams always came ready to battle. It didn't take long for us to figure each other out and continue playing competitive Kentucky basketball. We had some ups and downs that season. They called us the “Comeback Cats” because we came back and won a bunch of games we probably should have lost. We really dug deep in order to win some of those big games. There was one game during the NCAA Regional Finals in ’98 that stands out the most and really defined our season and how we were destined to win it all. We were down by 17 points with 10 minutes to go against Duke. People thought the game was over, and to be honest, we almost bought into that line of thinking too. Duke had Elton Brand, Roshown McLeod, and Shane Battier, to name a few that eventually played in the NBA. But we never gave up and kept playing as hard as we could. We came back and pulled out a win to advance to the Final Four in San Antonio and eventually win the Championship again. It was incredible.
But when I think back to that 1998 NCAA Championship, I always picture our team carrying Tubby off the floor. That’s the picture that’s engrained in my mind. It was just such a special accomplishment. So many people said we couldn’t do it after Coach P left and appearing in two consecutive Finals. There was so much doubt surrounding our ability to win a championship with a first-year coach. It was an unbelievable feeling to prove all those people wrong and make our fans so happy. I will never forget getting off the plane in Lexington with the fans waiting for us at the airport. They lined the streets from the airport to Rupp Arena pulling over their cars, waving flags and celebrating our homecoming as victors. The bus pulled into Rupp Arena to 20,000 fans going crazy with anticipation of raising another banner to the rafters.
What makes NCAA Championships particularly special is you are just a group of guys fighting for a common goal. You have the backing of the city/state and the school. You’re young; it’s your first time away from home. For us back then, it was all about the love of the game and the hope to accomplish a dream. Our mindset was NCAA Championship first, and NBA second. Once you get to the NBA level, it’s just as hard – if not harder – to win a championship because it’s four rounds of seven-game series. But it’s perceived differently because when you’re in the NBA, people (except your fans) look at it as our jobs as opposed to winning for school pride. The common denominator in an NCAA Championship and NBA Championship locker room is the brotherhood, respect for one another, sacrifice and team 1 mentality.
Of course college players, especially projected first-round picks, have the NBA Draft on their minds. It’s only natural. And if you ask me, playing well during the tournament can skyrocket your NBA Draft stock. It’s your chance for teams to see you in an atmosphere where every moment is so important, every play is huge, one possession can mean the difference between winning and losing. NBA Scouts like to see you play well in that type of high-pressure, win or go home atmosphere. For me personally, I think my performance helped me. Coach Pitino and Tubby always told us this: “When you win it all, everybody reaps the benefit.” We won and I played well in those games, so it put me in a good position for the NBA Draft. NBA teams are looking for high character, talented individuals who work hard, are coachable and put winning first.
This is just the beginning of a lot of basketball excitement…a time when basketball really starts to turn up to another level. From March Madness through to the NBA Playoffs and then the Finals, there’s a lot of excitement around post-season basketball at this time of year. I'm ready for it all!!! I love it, and I live for this type of basketball intensity. Whether you're still playing or a fan at home, I hope you enjoy it because I will.
And of course, I have to leave you with this: GO CATS!!!