Monday, December 12, 2011
Loud. Rabid. Insane. Crazy. Ridiculous. Obnoxious. Red. Electric. Rocking. Incredible. Unbelievable. All of the above.
Assembly Hall was at its absolute greatest on Saturday afternoon when No. 1 Kentucky visited Bloomington. The historical home of the Indiana Hoosiers was college basketball that evening.
My first trip to one of the nation's most celebrated arenas was everything I dreamed of and more. The atmosphere and the passion of IU fans illustrated college basketball at its best (and, at times, worst) on Saturday.
Road Trip to Bloomington
The drive from Central Kentucky was not bad, perhaps a little boring, but not bad. I car pooled with fellow Kentucky bloggers Scott Anderson (NationofBlue.com) and Walter Cornett (WildcatWorld.com) and we set the GPS to Bloomington, Indiana.
With the exception of a minor delay in Louisville (can't imagine commuting across that river every day), the first two-and-a-half hours of driving were a piece of cake.
The last portion of the journey is without the comfort of I-65, however. In fact, the 30-mile drive down IN-46 between the interstate and Bloomington reminded me of driving down route 7 in Eastern Kentucky. It was a long, winding country road with little-to-no cell phone service and nothing more to look at than trees, fields, farms and a few country homes.
The drive through the country was just long enough to remember my days back home, but short enough to prevent car sickness, headaches and the feeling that I had actually moved back home (thankfully).
Once we reached Nashville and then Bloomington, things opened up and we exchanged the always welcome "back to civilization" jokes.
We arrived at Assembly Hall at 2:30 p.m., grabbed our parking spot and prepared to face what appeared to be roughly 150-200 Indiana fans who were already waiting at the entrance.
I knew it was a road game when...
First, let me just say that I made the decision to wear a blue, collared shirt to the game because a) it was clean and matched my pants and b) I figured we could all just get along.
We grabbed our laptops, cameras and other various media tools and headed to the arena.
After about 10-15 steps (literally), I heard a loud and obnoxious: "F*** KENTUCKY!!!"
My first thought was, "is he talking to me" and my first reaction was to look in that general direction.
Sure enough, I was greeted by a double, two-fingered salute and a loud, "yeah! I said it!"
An aside: I did notice that the kid had a big Greek "SAE" painted on his back. Let me just say Phi Alpha to you brother. If you don't mind, try to represent the True Gentleman with a little more class and character. By the way, didn't IU temporarily kick their SAE chapter off campus for being stupid a decade ago?
Now, getting back to the story. We worked our way through the crowd with some limited hazing, but nothing out of the way.
Impressions of Assembly Hall
For me, entering storied Assembly Hall for the first time was like entering a museum of basketball greatness.
The first thing I noticed when I walked through the door were Hall of Fame plaques and championship trophies. I was enamored with the pictures of legendary Hoosiers such as Calbert Chaney, Keith Smart, Steve Alford, Jared Jeffries and on and on. Even the pictures of "The General" Robert Montgomery Knight reminded me of the greatness that once was Indiana basketball. I never cheered for those guys, but I certainly respected them.
Even though I had seen that Indiana logo on television numerous times, walking into the arena for the first time gave me cold chills. I will admit, it was bigger than I expected and I knew immediately that it was going to be a tough environment.
One of the first things I noticed when checking out the court was the one and only Dick Vitale playing around with what appeared to be his grand kids. I know fans rarely get to see the real Vitale on the tube, but he is one of the nicer guys you can ever meet. He is one of those "superstars" who mingles with the fans, poses for pictures and is generally always in a pleasant mood. In my mind, Dick Vitale is one of the all-time great ambassadors of college basketball.
More than an hour before tip, I knew Kentucky was facing a tough situation
A group of rowdy IU fans entered the arena more than an hour before the game was set to begin. They were painted, decked out in costumes, holding signs, screaming and unintentionally giving some great foreshadowing for what was coming soon. In hindsight, that group of fans was like a small piece to a giant Assembly Hall puzzle that would eventually be Kentucky's worst nightmare.
We retreated to the media room to mingle a little and quite honestly, to see what kind of food the IU folks had to offer.
I have to give some credit, the food was great. The spread included pepperoni pizza sticks, barbecued beef, mac-n-cheese and more. Good food. Check.
After pigging out, uh, I mean finishing our meal, we headed back to the arena, which was starting to fill up with fans. At that point, there were spots of blue around the arena and I felt that UK would have a pretty good crowd.
Unfortunately, it turned out that those were basically the ONLY Kentucky fans who managed to get in.
The other 17,000+ fans were Indiana red through-and-through. The arena quickly filled up and, to be honest, all hell broke loose.
Let me discuss the bad points first
I want to go ahead and get this out of the way before I move into an otherwise all-time great college basketball atmosphere.
Many of the Indiana fans were downright rude and obnoxious and there was absolutely no place for it. If you are one of the losers who screamed "F*** KENTUCKY" or "A** HOLE" in a crowd that included children, elderly adults and innocent victims, then you are an idiot. Before you give me the classic "that happens at Kentucky, too" argument, just go ahead and stop yourself. If anyone in Kentucky does the same thing, then they are idiots, too.
For the record, I have been to many games at Rupp Arena and I have never witnessed anything like that. The only thing that comes close was the embarrassing "Walsh is gay" chants from several years ago.
Now that we know where I stand on that subject, let's move on to what the Indiana faithful did right.
Kentucky had to be nervous. I'm a media guy and I was rattled.
I have to be honest...I have played in and watched hundreds of basketball games during my life and I have never seen anything like Assembly Hall on Saturday. That was the best college basketball atmosphere that I have ever been blessed to experience.
My words can't do it justice, so I'll illustrate the scene with some videos I recorded.
This is thirty minutes before the game:
The crowd continued with this level of intensity during the entire game. I did not hear a single word that the P.A. announcer said during the game. I rarely heard the officials blowing their whistles.
The fans were without question the difference in the game. If the same two teams played tomorrow, I think Kentucky beats Indiana 6-10 points on a neutral court and 12-18 points at Rupp Arena. In fact, I'm impressed that Kentucky had an opportunity to win the game. As strange as it sounds, I came away from the loss feeling like UK is actually better than I thought.
From a basketball perspective, a number of things stood out:
- Marquis Teague was overwhelmed in the first half. It's no wonder. He was abused by the crowd and was trying to do a little more than he was capable of doing. In the second half, he settled down and suddenly became the next great John Calipari point guard.
- Michael Kidd-Gilchrist may have been the best player on the court. If the last two games by MKG don't have NBA scouts salivating, I don't know what will.
- Anthony Davis was in foul the entire game and his production overall impact on the game was limited.
- Darius Miller is a man amongst boys...literally. There was a stretch in the second half were UK could have folded up the tent and lost by double digits but Miller put the team on his back and willed them in the other direction.
- Doron Lamb was one of the key players during the entire game. He missed a clutch free throw late, but the rest of his afternoon was outstanding. Terrence Jones, on the other hand....wait, did he dress?
- Eloy Vargas has improved dramatically. He is giving the Wildcats solid minutes and is actually helping the team.
- Make no mistake about it, I think UK is more talented than Indiana but it's not like the Hoosiers are a bunch of non-athletic slums. These guys can play and are well-deserving of their top 20 ranking. I think the Hoosiers can advance to the Sweet 16 and, with a little luck and/or hot shooting, possibly more in March.
A couple of funny stories:
- At halftime, we walked outside to get a breath of fresh air. There was an Indiana fan out there and we were chit-chatting about the game. He said, "as much as you boys get paid, I'm sure it's all worth it."
We informed him that we were bloggers and didn't work for companies or anything.
"And they let you guys in the games with media passes?" he questioned with wheels turning. "No s**t?"
I fully expect to see that guy in the media room the next time I'm in Bloomington.
- As we returned to our seats after halftime, I was leading a group that included Scott Anderson and Alan Cutler (they can confirm this story) up the stairs to our seats. An Indiana fan decided he was going to basically run the Kentucky media guys over on the steps. I saw it coming and braced for it...he bounced off and nearly fell down the stairs. Scott claims that I followed through with a friendly forearm but I deny those rumors.
That last play
- Calipari and the players said the instruction was given to intentionally foul the Hoosiers and force them to take the ball out of bounds on the final play (the Cats had two fouls to give)
- The official didn't call the first attempt at the foul and then Kentucky seemingly forgot to make another attempt.
- Kentucky probably should have matched up full court rather than play back on defense.
Of course, the result was one of the great moments in Indiana basketball history:
I have no problem with Indiana fans storming the court. It was a dangerous situation in many ways and luckily, no one was seriously injured. They deserved to storm the court after working as hard as they did during the game.
This is a full twenty minutes after the game:
Indiana basketball is back on the map and there's no denying it.
After the game, Indiana's Verdell Jones said that he had not seen an atmosphere like the one on Saturday.
I haven't either.
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