LEXINGTON, Ky.—Four fountains of confetti billowed and streamers floated down to the court at Rupp Arena.
Players donned shirts that read “UK2K.”
At the center of a mass of blue celebration, junior forward Patrick Patterson addressed 24,354 fans—few of which had left early.
It was easy to tell that something special happened Monday night as Kentucky ended its domination of Drexel with an 88-44 final score, leading to a post-game celebration that had little to do with one win and much with history.
In 1903, Kentucky won its first basketball game against the Lexington YMCA. A century and 1,999 wins later, the Wildcats became the first team to 2,000 wins—at Calipari's former assistant, Bruiser Flint, and Drexel's expense.
“(Bruiser) hit us at a bad time,” Calipari said. “That's as good as we play together. I left the end of our bench in there for seven minutes, and I hate to tell you, but even they played well.”
Things haven't always been as free flowing as they are right now for a program that claims it's as tradition-rich—if not more so—than any other.
But since Kentucky hired John Calipari last April, the Wildcats haven't lost. They're No. 3 in the nation. They have arguably the best player in the country in John Wall. And they have a coach, who although he made mistakes in the past, has taken all the right steps at Kentucky.
“We weren't a part of many of those 2,000 wins, but we had a job to do and that was drag us across the line before that other blue team got across it,” Calipari said at center court, his words eventually drowned out by cheers.
“It's hard to tell those 24,000 fans that stuck around that this is not that important,” Calipari later told the media. “I think all those things that separate this program from others, is that it's important to the Commonwealth.”
After the Wildcats beat Austin Peay last Saturday, Calipari said Kentucky hadn't fully recovered from the past. In a span of 48 hours, the turnaround has completed from a dismal 2008-2009 season that saw Kentucky accept a bid to the National Invitational Tournament rather than the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1992.
With a program left somewhere between greatness and shambles and a 40-27 overall record by former coach Billy Gillispie, the swagger that started with Rick Pitino in the early 1990s diminished. The team's talent level—outside of Patrick Patterson and Jodie Meeks—plummeted, leaving Kentucky at its lowest point since Pitino rebuilt the program from probation.
Enter Calipari, who rescued the Wildcats and a fan base from unaccepted mediocrity—who returned the swagger that was once lost.
Because the murmurs and rumbles and eventual fan outburst coming from Rupp Arena Monday night all signaled one thing: a well-timed return to the top of college basketball's hierarchy by Kentucky. Freshman John Hood, a Kentucky native, agreed.
“I knew it was coming eventually,” Hood said. “I didn't think I was going to be the one to be a part of it.”
The Wildcats—who have already won the Cancun Challenge, handled North Carolina, and beaten Connecticut—reached a new high by holding Drexel to a season-low 44 points.
They did it with a defensive intensity that Calipari has been looking for all season. They did it with the speed and talent demanded by Calipari's Dribble Drive offense, outscoring Drexel on the fast break 14-2.
They did it with the power of 24,000 fans.
“It's crazy that all of them actually stuck around after the game just to hang out and honor it with us and celebrate it with us,” junior Josh Harrellson said. “Hopefully we can keep on going.”
It's easy to say Calipari is the perfect fit at Kentucky, as the Wildcats are winning—even Calipari said he knows that's what matters in the grand scheme of things. But they don't hang banners for beating North Carolina and Kansas to 2,000 wins.
They would for an eighth NCAA Title—one that would close the margin to UCLA's 11 championships and the exclusive rights to college basketball's most storied program.
Calipari has done everything right at Kentucky. There's no reason to think his efforts will stop at just 2,000.