Kentucky on verge of 2,000 wins
LEXINGTON, Ky. — The pressure to win at Kentucky started early. Really early.
Back in 1903, W.W.H. Mustaine, the director of physical education at the time, called some students together and passed around the hat until there was $3 in it — enough to buy a ball. He then told them to start playing.
The first season got off to a bumpy start. The Wildcats went just 1-2, their only win an 11-10 escape over the Lexington YMCA.
The next year, Mustaine was out.
From those modest beginnings, a powerhouse emerged.
Over a century later, what started with a handful of students and a single leather ball has grown into one of college basketball’s biggest brands, one that has woven itself into the fabric of the Bluegrass.
There have been 1,998 victories since that squeaker over the Lexington YMCA, including seven NCAA titles and 25 Southeastern Conference tournament championships.
Now the program which proudly proclaims it has “the greatest tradition in college basketball” can add another bullet point to its resume. A win over Drexel on Monday would make the third-ranked Wildcats (11-0) the first team in NCAA history to reach 2,000 wins.
While it’s an achievement that may be lost on the current players — junior forward Patrick Patterson called it “no big deal” — coach John Calipari understands the greater meaning.
“It’s important to the Commonwealth,” he said.
Is it ever.
Like many Kentucky fans, Ashley Judd grew up listening to the familiar cadence of longtime play-by-play man Cawood Ledford calling out the exploits of former stars Kyle Macy and Sam Bowie.
Later, as a student between 1986 and 1990, she dutifully showed up at Rupp Arena even as the program sagged under then-coach Eddie Sutton.
Reaching 2,000 wins is more than just a number to Judd. It’s a chance to look back and appreciate the program’s rich tradition.
“It’s symbolic, it’s beautiful and we’d minimize it if someone else got there first,” the actress said with a laugh.
And maybe that more than anything else is the point.
Kentucky won’t be the only member of the 2,000-win club for long. North Carolina (1,992 wins) almost certainly will reach the plateau this year while No. 1 Kansas (1,980) could join both of them with a deep run in the NCAA tournament.
Yet for a few weeks anyway the Wildcats will stand alone, which is the way some fans feel it always should be, said Van Florence.
Florence has spent the last 30 years as president of Kentucky’s “101 Club,” an organization that provides the all the ushers in the familiar blue blazers during home games at Rupp Arena. He’s endured the good times and the bad working alongside every coach from Joe B. Hall to Rick Pitino to Calipari.
“Anytime Kentucky can beat North Carolina, if they can beat them to the bathroom, it’s a big deal,” Florence said. “Our fans feel like if we do it first, we’ve earned the respect.”
It’s a feat even Florence worried was in doubt last year as the Tar Heels ate into Kentucky’s lead while the Wildcats struggled under former coach Billy Gillispie.
Funny, those days seem long gone with Calipari and freshman star John Wall at the controls.
Calipari is off to the best start ever by a first-year Kentucky coach — breaking Rupp’s 10-0 start during his first season in 1930-31 — and the Wildcats are crossing the 2,000-win mark as arguably the hottest team in the country.
“If it happened last year it might have been lost on us a little bit or perhaps used to justify and rationalize that the program wasn’t as down as it really was,” Judd said. “We might have said ’We’re just in a momentary lull, we’re still UK.’ I think that it has a lot more shine on it because we’re reaching it from such a giddy season.”
The program, whose motto is “respect our past, fear our future,” will try to do both once it reaches the landmark number. Several former players are expected to be in attendance Monday night, and there are plans for a postgame celebration if the Wildcats win.
If it adds a little pressure to the players, that’s fine by Calipari. The coach has grown anxious as the Wildcats have surged, searching for ways to keep them sharp until SEC play begins.
Ultimately he knows his team will be judged on what it does in March, not it’s ability to push the school’s wins odometer past 2,000. Still, the players understand they have a unique opportunity to do something unprecedented.
“It’s not something I’m focusing on, (just) as long as we’re the first to get it,” Patterson said.
It’s a goal Patterson understands is more for the fans than for the players. That’s the way it’s been for years.
“As a player when we played, we understood how important it was for the state for us to win,” said former Kentucky star Walter McCarty, who helped the Wildcats to the 1996 NCAA title. “We understood what it meant.”
Don’t expect the players — or even the fans — to get too caught up in the hoopla. Once the Wildcats surpass 2,000 wins the attention will turn toward a much smaller number: eight, as in when will the Wildcats win their eighth NCAA title?
“We do have a deep memory,” said Judd, who hopes to be in attendance with Kentucky hosts Louisville on Jan. 2. “A lot of people were comparing the expectations around this team to the 1944 squad, like that’s normal, like it’s natural to have a memory that stretches back that far.”