This is part of a ‘Road to the Final Four’ Sunday series looking at the hotbeds of college basketball.
Scott Cross is working with his team during the pregame shootaround at historic Rupp Arena.
Hanging in the rafters are championship banners and jerseys of some of college’s greatest names. Adolph Rupp. Rick Pitino. John Pelphrey. Sam Bowie.
But the UT Arlington men’s basketball coach isn’t focused on that. Cross is worried about re-emphasizing the game plan to his team. Run the shot clock down as much as possible. The fewer possessions in the game, the easier it will be for the Mavericks to pull off a monumental upset.
At the time, it feels possible. Most famed sports venues feel like walking into a 200-year old church. You can feel the history just by being inside that empty gym.
Rupp Arena doesn’t have that aura to it. It’s a unique two-story building attached to a shopping center a few blocks off campus, but nothing jumps out at you.
“This place is what it is because of the fans,” Cross says. “You’ll see.”
That proves to be true even for what would seem to be a rather insignificant game against a small school.
Fans show up by the dozens, students camp out to get the best seats possible and the Kentucky fight song is ringing in everyone’s ears by the end of the night.
“The school lives and dies by basketball,” said Ryan Clark, a 20-year-old student from Somerset, Ky. “You can tell the difference between when we win and when we lose.”
In this mid-November game, Kentucky has little trouble against undersized UTA. The Wildcats build a nine-point lead by halftime and go on to a 29-point victory.
Freshmen James Young and Julius Randle lead the team in scoring, each surpassing the 20-point mark, and the team wins the rebounding battle by 12.
Still, Kentucky coach John Calipari isn’t pleased with his team’s performance. The first half could have been better, and he felt the Mavericks came out with more energy.
“Look, we’ve got a long ways to go,” Calipari says.
Calipari and the Wildcats have their eyes on bringing home a ninth championship banner. But for the UTA squad, a loss is a loss, but playing at a venue such as Rupp Arena is something they will remember forever.
It goes that way for everyone. Kentucky fans know how privileged they are to have a home venue as historic as Rupp. It’s named after the school’s legendary coach, who won 876 games and four national championships.
“It’s the best basketball experience I’ve ever had because we’re one of the best basketball teams,” said Jaliya Slaton, a freshman from Madisonville, Ky.
“Basketball is a religion here,” said Derriel Castle, a 78-year-old from Lexington. “It’s just a big part of everyone’s life.”
Said Scott Padgett, who played at UK from 1994-99: “I remember my first game there when I was kid in 1989 and sitting on the very last row of the upper level. I loved it. I would’ve had a much better view if I just stayed home and watched the game on TV, but it was one of the coolest things ever.
“And then to run out of the tunnel and onto the floor, it’s even cooler. The band is playing, the crowd is going nuts … great environment.”
Part of the reason college basketball is so popular is there are no professional sports teams in the state. It’s basketball 24/7.
If you’re not a hoops fan, you’re not going to last too long in the state. It’d be like living in Pinehurst, N.C., and not liking golf.
Padgett remembers the reverent treatment he and his teammates received during their years there. After all, he was in the middle of a great run.
Padgett signed to play under Pitino and was part of the 1996 national championship team. Pitino then bolted for the NBA, but the Wildcats stayed among the elite and won another championship in 1998 under Tubby Smith.
“Coach P had us rolling on all cylinders, and it got to the point where guys on the team could police themselves and set the tone and knew what it took to win,” said Padgett, who went on to have an eight-year career in the NBA and is now an assistant coach at Samford.
“And the smartest thing that Tubby Smith did while I was there was not change how we were playing. Once he got his own guys in there he ran his style, but he didn’t change how we played. He did a great job of not coming in and trying to clean house.”
Still, the Pitino departure stung fans, and it still does even to this day. Pitino then poured more salt on that wound by returning to the college ranks at rival Louisville.
Clark, the UK student, called Pitino “a traitor.” Others have moved on. In the end, though, all of them are happy that Calipari is in charge.
The Smith era didn’t end too well with him leaving for Minnesota after the 2007 season, and things slipped further when they brought in former Texas A&M coach Billy Gillispie.
The Wildcats made the NCAA Tournament in Gillispie’s first season but were headed to the NIT the following season. It had become clear that Gillispie wasn’t the right person for the job and was fired after only two seasons.
Enter Calipari, who immediately restored the Wildcats to prominence. They went to the Elite Eight in Calipari’s first season, to the Final Four in his second and won the championship in his third.
Calipari had a disappointing 2012-13 season but has the Wildcats back in contention this season with another strong recruiting class. Randle is averaging a double-double every night, Young is a threat from the outside and twins Andrew and Aaron Harrison are playing well.
They are among the many teams with a chance to get hot at the right time this season and, of course, it’s the biggest story in town.
“Kentucky is one of the great brands in the game,” college basketball analyst Jay Bilas said. “When you say Kentucky, the first thing you think of is basketball. They love basketball there. I don’t know what it is, but basketball is different than every other sport there. It’s revered.”