If you believe in the existence of the basketball gods and their almighty power over the hardwood, than it makes perfect sense that Kentucky and Ohio State are meeting Friday in what is unquestionably the biggest game of the Cats’ season.
After all, it feels like this just had to happen.
Many years from now we’ll look back on this Kentucky group and think of one thing: what if Kanter had played?
Losing him for good when the NCAA ruled he was indefinitely suspended is something we’ve all tried our best to forget. One way or another, we should remember it tomorrow.
Lets be clear, the team deserves credit for the way it has moved on from what was obviously a very disappointing decision. But then again, that’s what teams are supposed to do. Several other top teams in the country have also lost key players to injury (Duke,) suspension (BYU,) or just flat-out quitting (North Carolina) and have still put together terrific seasons.
What may be more impressive is the way the Kentucky fan base has moved on from its “Free Enes” revolution. It was clear from the feedback we were getting at the station that for most fans, after a week or two of bashing the NCAA and wallowing in the raw deal they felt Kentucky had yet again received, they were ready to move past it. Nobody wanted to hear anymore about it and nobody was using it as an excuse.
Yet all these months later, the fact remains that losing Kanter was an enormous blow to this team. Sure, Josh Harrellson’s season has been a joy for every UK fan to watch. An upperclassman whose career was left for dead a year ago, he used sheer determination to work his way in to owning and eventually mastering a mostly thankless job as the Cats’ blue collar man in the middle. Without Harrellson, the Cats would not be where they are today, simple as that.
But, Harrellson is not Kanter. And don’t fool yourself, it’s not even close.
For those of us who have been fortunate enough to watch Kanter play in person this season in the Cats closed door practices, his ability is jaw dropping.
But even if you’ve only seen him on television, as I did the first time I saw him, you know what I mean…even if you’ve chosen to forget.
I’m talking about last spring when Kanter played for the world select team in the Nike Hoops Summit, an all-star game for high school players. I remember the TrueBlueFan Facebook wall was full of posts by people who, like me, were ready to check out John Calipari’s latest commitment on national TV.
What we all saw was a spectacle. Kanter scored every way imaginable, finishing with a game-record 34 points and 13 rebounds. I remember watching and thinking, “There’s no way he’s this good.” He just couldn’t be.
The only other solution was that the guy he was matched up against for most of the night must be overrated. Sure, he was signed to Ohio State and I knew that he was regarded by recruiting experts as the top big man in the class of 2010, but after what I saw, that just couldn’t be right. This guy had to be all hype. There was no way Kanter could so thoroughly dominate a player at this level if the opponent wasn’t grossly overrated.
Of course, that player was Jared Sullinger. Obviously I learned very quickly that he clearly is not overrated, he’s one of the best college players in the country.
So what does that say about Kanter? Well, it doesn’t matter…because we’ll never know. Kanter and Sullinger will meet again but it will be in the NBA, not the NCAA Tournament.
That’s why Kentucky and Ohio State meeting in the tournament feels fated to happen. Whether we like it or not, history will remember this season first for the story of the superstar freshman turned student assistant coach. For the way Enes wasn’t freed. So it had to be that the season’s defining moment comes against the same player who we first saw Kanter dominate. The player who’s success all year has made me wonder if when we all adopted the “Free Enes” campaign, we really understood just how significant his presence on this team could be.
Tomorrow determines how that story will end. Either this team will be remembered for overcoming what easily could have been a crippling loss in a way none of us could have imagined to beat the best team in the country and potentially advance to a Final Four. Or, they’ll lose to a team that most will agree was better than them and we’ll be left wondering, what could have been?