Why basketball is special in Ky.

-A A +A
By John Shindlebower

The best thing about high school basketball in Kentucky was on display at Rupp Arena on Saturday night. Unlike other states, where schools are divided into classes and they compete for state titles based on their enrollment, Kentucky’s Sweet Sixteen is open to every school of every size and they’re all going after one lone title.

Indiana’s system used to be set up this way, and that’s what made the movie Hoosiers such a memorable David vs. Goliath story, as tiny Hickory High School (in real life – it was Milan, Indiana) went up against the big city boys and cut down the nets.

Sadly, Indiana scrapped their one title tournament several years ago and many ardent hoops fans to the north will tell you high school basketball lost some of its luster then.

But here in Kentucky, we’ve maintained the tradition and every now and then, a small school like Pike County’s Shelby Valley will make it Lexington, win four games in three days, and remind us why high school basketball in Kentucky is special.

I wouldn’t suggest making this system mandatory for all sports. To be honest, in a game like football where shear numbers sometimes can determine the amount of success, the bigger schools would have an advantage that would almost be impossible to overcome.

In basketball however, it seems that a five-on-five game can be evened out, even for a small school, if those players bring a good combination of experience, talent, hard-work and determination. It also doesn’t hurt to have a player of the caliber of Mr. Basketball candidate Elisha Justice who has been offered a walk-on position for Rick Pitino at Louisville.

Last year it was Elliott County who made some noise but fell short. A few years ago, June Buchanan from tiny Pippa Passes, Kentucky made their way to Lexington. A small school doesn’t have to win the title every year to make Kentucky’s system worthwhile. But every now and then, when it happens, it makes the Sweet Sixteen that much sweeter.

* On a negative note – it was disappointing to see so little coverage of the Sweet Sixteen on the Louisville television stations. Saturday night I was hoping to catch some highlights, interviews and some good coverage. I know the NCAA tournament and Kentucky’s victory would take precedence, but for the high school championship game to be pushed to the back of the sports, behind an out-of-state horse race, seems absurd.

* Upsets, buzzer-beaters, and bracket-busters. Those are the terms of March Madness and the first weekend of the tournament has been as exciting as any in recent memory. Watching upsets like Murray taking out Vandy and Northern Iowa defeating top-seeded Kansas are what makes this the most exciting event in American sports.

* Kentucky has looked more than impressive, as if they’ve found a gear they never used during the regular season. As much as the fab freshmen and Patrick Patterson mean to the team’s success, I’ve always maintained that if Darius Miller can come in and contribute 10-12 points a game, this team is unbeatable.

* As much as I’m enjoying this season, I worry about Kentucky next year. Will we join the ranks of UConn, UCLA, North Carolina and others premier programs who missed the big dance this year? Losing as much talent as many expect us to lose to the NBA will be hard to overcome. Many expect Calipari to simply reload with new recruits, and I’m sure he’ll get his share. What I’m not sure of however, is that we really appreciate how special this current group of freshman is. It’s unfair for us to expect next year’s freshmen to come in produce like Walls, Bledsoe, Cousins, and even Orton of late. I’m not trying to be a downer, just realistic.

* Am I alone among Kentucky fans who actually wish there was a way I could root for Cornell? If you are a college basketball purist, who knows deep down that college basketball has become more of a minor league system for the NBA than it is a competition for true student-athletes, isn’t there a part of you that would love to see Cornell advance and prove that it can be done the old way? Me too.

Now, come game time and once that ball is tossed into the air at midcourt, none of that will matter. The only thing that will resonate will me will be seeing the words “Kentucky” on the uniforms and envisioning an 8th banner at Rupp.

But still….

* The Spencer County baseball and softball teams will both be in action this week and the weather looks like it will cooperate at least part of the time. Spring is here and I’ve circled my calendar for April 5 – quite possibly the best day of 2010. Not only is that the date for the NCAA Championship Game (and my bracket has a battle of the Wildcats – Kentucky and Kansas State) but it’s also Opening Day for the Cincinnati Reds. And on Opening Day – every team is in first place!