Take Me Out to the Bowl Game

In the end, the Cats finally took care of business. It wasn’t quite the 60-0 blowout everyone was predicting. Or was it 70-0?

“Play all the seniors,” everyone suggested. “Play the walk-ons. Play Luke Wright. It won’t matter.”

It mattered.

Austin Peay jumped off to a 13-0 start before Stephen Johnson came in and righted the ship, playing with more confidence than I think we’ve seen all season.

The Cats were still being bitten by all the same bugs – a dropped sure-touchdown pass, a penalty that wiped out a 94-yard Boom Williams touchdown run. Another penalty erased a Jojo Kemp TD scamper.

But in the end, Kemp gave back to the crowd all the Senior Day love they’d showered on him with a magnificent final Commonwealth Stadium appearance. And Bennie Snell showed the irresistible freshman force he has become.

If Snell were playing that other sport across campus, we’d be saying how terrific it was to share this one breakout autumn with him before he went off to join the professional tour. Good luck, young man, see you on Sundays.

But we know this gifted athlete will be back in Lexington next season, hopefully sharing the backfield again with Boom, piling up the yardage, the touchdowns – the wins?

Some of the coverage during the week focused on the three senior defensive backs: J.D. Harmon, Blake McClain and Marcus McWilson. Watching these three talk about the culmination of their college careers, you couldn’t help but be struck by how mature, reflective and thoughtful they’ve become after four years on campus.

I just couldn’t shake the idea that devoting your entire college-age years to being in college cannot necessarily be a bad thing.

BOYS TO MEN

The big bad NCAA heaps bad publicity on itself all the time. There’s currently a documentary on Showtime about the short, unhappy college career of Ben Simmons.

As he thrashed through his involuntary servitude at LSU, he and his entire family blamed the NCAA for keeping him shackled to the program, forcing him to walk through campus while people had the temerity to address him “as if they’re my friends” – and without any compensation.

First of all, as others have pointed out, it’s the NBA’s rule, not the NCAA’s.

But beyond that, I thought of all the basketball youngsters who come, similarly shackled, to Lexington for a year. I have no inkling of any of this same bitterness. And, by the way, many of these Kentucky kids played at the same level as Simmons – maybe higher, since they accomplished more in school and have so far accomplished more in the pros.

John Wall, Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns were number one picks, too. DeMarcus Cousins, Julius Randle, Brandon Knight, Eric Bledsoe and Devin Booker are All-Stars.

But they come back to campus, come back to Big Blue Madness, participate in John Calipari’s camps and charitable events. You occasionally see them in the stands at Kentucky games. They sing the praises of Kentucky and Calipari, often without being asked.

Not just the NBA megastars. Also Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones, Nerlens Noel, Willie Cauley-Stein, Trey Lisles – even Kyle Wiltjer, whose outstanding college career will be defined by most as having taken place at Gonzaga.

Okay, so maybe Simmons just chose the wrong program. Maybe, at Kentucky, he wouldn’t have been allowed to sulk his team out of the NCAA tournament. Maybe, at Kentucky, Kenny Payne would have grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and taken him to class.

Maybe, at Kentucky, he would have been inspired by the banners hanging from Rupp’s rafters. Maybe playing at Madison Square Garden – being included in the select company of Kansas, Duke and Michigan State – would have turned his thinking around.

Maybe. But Simmons himself has to share some of that responsibility.

It’s a screwed-up arrangement to be sure. Nobody’s kidding anybody anymore about the “student athlete.” But sometimes, being a college student involves more than studying for your Spanish midterm or writing your freshman history essay on the Victorian Era.

Sometimes, it just means being given a chance to grow up. To develop, not only as an athlete but also as a person.

Calipari has been talking a lot about the transformation of Isaiah Briscoe from last season to this. Playing better, yes, but also having matured as a young man and as a teammate – a leader.

Freshmen are kids. They often grow up a little between freshman and sophomore years, if the opportunity presents itself.

Some, like Briscoe, accept the opportunity. Some, like Simmons, reject it.

Who’s the winner? VT