CLEVELAND -- Go ahead and rage against tradition. As much as we are a nation of sports fans who adore the underdog, who hold 1980 in Lake Placid as the gold standard, who want every NCAA championship game to end with another Jimmy V scrambling for someone to hug, the overdog's time has come.
The Kentucky Wildcats are likable, embraceable overdogs. Root for them to pull this off. Now that they have blown West Virginia out by a staggering 78-39 score in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament and find themselves halfway home in a sudden-death event set up for them to fail, go ahead and get behind these tall and remarkably poised kids as they try to deliver the only 40-0 college basketball season we'll see in our lifetime.
This isn't any conversion call to those within the South Bend, Indiana, city limits or to Notre Dame's famous subway alumni in New York and beyond. This message is reserved for millions of average guy and gal neutrals out there, the fans who watch the games people play just waiting, hoping, praying for some zillion-to-one shot to send home an allegedly indestructible force.
John Calipari's players don't deserve your upset-minded thoughts or your body English trying to disconnect their alleys from their oops. The Wildcats aren't the bad guys here. In fact, they were the good guys Thursday night, when paired against West Virginia and Daxter Miles Jr., a freshman who had promised the 36-0 Wildcats would be on a plane bound for the bluegrass as the unhappiest 36-1 team in the world on Friday.
Now Miles is a whole lot younger than Joe Willie Namath and Mark Messier were when they delivered on more famous guarantees and a whole lot younger than Patrick Ewing and Rex Ryan were when they failed to deliver on theirs. In other words, Miles deserves a little slack. He wasn't even old enough Wednesday to propose a toast to his boast and legally drink a glass of expensive wine.
"It was a freshman who said it," West Virginia coach Bob Huggins reminded reporters, "and I'm kind of happy he had confidence. I'm kind of happy he wasn't hiding under a chair somewhere, you know?"
But yes, Miles did anger the Wildcats. He did give them a new cause to rally around when he claimed they "don't play hard," they should be intimidated by the magnitude of their own all-or-nothing goal and they were going to go down in the Sweet 16 -- and go down hard.
"Nobody is invincible," Miles had said, "so their time will come."
Miles' guarantee didn't exactly have its desired effect in the opening minutes. West Virginia was proving to be really good at hacking Kentucky -- and nothing else. Devin Williams, the 6-foot-9 forward who represented the Mountaineers' only size, picked up his second foul 74 seconds into the game, marched angrily to the bench and left in his wake the kind of absurd height mismatch you'd find in a varsity-versus-freshmen scrimmage. Not even seven minutes had expired, and the Wildcats already were in the bonus, shooting 1-and-1.
Meanwhile, Huggins cut a sad figure slumped on his padded stool near the bench. Kentucky scored 18 of the first 20 points and 30 of the first 40. If someone had handed Huggins a white towel, he surely would've thrown it onto the court.
"You've got guys that are going to be lottery picks," the losing coach said, "and they give the ball up. They share the ball. John's done an incredible job."
Huggins went on to call Kentucky the best defensive team he has coached against. He suggested the Wildcats were among the most selfless too.
So even if you don't care for Calipari's sideline style, his roguish NCAA past or his willingness to push college basketball's one-and-done reality to the max, there isn't anything to despise about his team or the way he has coached it. Just like today's San Antonio Spurs and Atlanta Hawks and just like yesterday's Lakers and Celtics of Magic and Bird, Kentucky plays basketball at its highest, most team-centric form.
The Wildcats play for one another. They don't play for multimillion-dollar NBA contracts, though those will be coming soon enough.
They play ferociously, yet with enough dignity to make you think John Wooden would be just as proud of them as John Calipari has been. The Wildcats had every right to trash-talk Miles all night, and other than a stray remark here or there (one Kentucky fan seated near courtside kept yelling at him to "grab the microphone" near the end of the first half), they let him drown in his own hubris. Miles had his first shot rejected and missed three field goals and two foul shots in a scoreless 19 minutes. Afterward, he pulled something of a Marshawn Lynch in the locker room in repeatedly telling reporters Kentucky played great.
On the winning side, Tyler Ulis said Kentucky was focused on "demolishing" the Mountaineers for the trash talk.
"Our whole plan was to crush their spirit," the reserve guard said. "Beat them by 50 for disrespecting us."
Although Miles had earned this rebuke and then some, Calipari eloquently explained why this was not the Kentucky way.
"I don't want our team to play angry," he said. "I don't want them to be mean, nasty, hateful. I don't want that. It's not us against the world. It is play with joy and the love of the game and the love of each other. That wins every time."
So does a team that shoots 61 percent in the first half, holds its opponents to 19 percent over the same period and finishes with five players scoring between 12 and 14 points. The Wildcats share and care and celebrate the whole over the individual, and that's why they are worthy of coast-to-coast support.
Listen, we all know the deal: No story in sports is more appealing than the indelible upset. The U.S. hockey team over the Soviets' Big Red Machine at Lake Placid. Joe Willie over the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. Buster Douglas over Mike Tyson in Tokyo. Villanova over Georgetown. Jimmy V over Houston. The Miracle Mets of '69.
Notre Dame over Kentucky in the regional final here Saturday would be right up there, but this is no time to be firing up the fight song and breaking out the old "Rudy" DVD. In fact, Kentucky qualifies as an underdog in its own right. The Wildcats are long shots when matched up against history and human nature, two indomitable opponents in a best-of-one tournament that doesn't allow for a bad day at the office.
If you want to root against them, knock yourself out.
But please understand that if you root for Kentucky to lose to Notre Dame on Saturday or to someone else in the Final Four, you are most definitely rooting for the second-best story on the board.