Culture / Sporting Life

Kentucky’s Mystique is Real — UH Faces Off Against Aura of John Calipari’s Super Program as Kelvin Sampson Questions Swirl

Forget Phi Slama Jama, Houston's Players Grew Up Idolizing Kentucky's NBA Stars

BY // 03.28.19

Corey Davis Jr. and the rest of University of Houston’s basketball team may have woken up the echoes of Phi Slama Jama. But Kentucky basketball is the program that captured their imagination growing up.

Now while some UH fans obsess over the notion that coach Kelvin Sampson might follow former Houston athletic director Hunter Yurachek to Arkansas (it’s too early to tell) and others fixate on whether Wildcats star PJ Washington will play or not (he will), Kentucky’s mystique and aura looms as a real obstacle for the Cougars in the Sweet 16.

Kentucky’s not just a 29-6 team with four potential first round NBA draft picks on its roster. It’s the program that many of Houston’s players dreamed of playing for as kids.

“That was really always one of my favorite colleges ever since I’ve been watching basketball,” Davis tells PaperCity. “Ever since John Wall was there. Anthony Davis. The (Harrison) Twins. I always watched Kentucky basketball.

“Just to be playing them is a great honor. It’s not every day you get a chance to play a team like that. It’s a blessing.”

John Calipari’s brand is strong, built by the never-ending parade of future NBA stars that have been jetting through his program long before Zion Williamson finally made Duke cool.

“Growing up I always wanted to go to Kentucky,” Houston sixth man DeJon Jarreau says. “Just because of Anthony Davis, John Wall and those type of players.

“It’s just surreal.”

And people used to think the mystique and aura of the New York Yankees could spook seasoned professional baseball players? Imagine college kids in that type of situation.

Sampson’s challenge is very well as the 8:59 pm Friday tip in Kansas City draws closer. He doesn’t just need to drill his players on a gameplan that can topple Kentucky. He most also convince them that they’re not playing the ghosts of John Wall and Anthony Davis.

There is no pretending that a Sweet 16 showdown is just another game. And there is also no sense pretending that playing Kentucky is not a different animal.

“It’s definitely a dream of mine to go up against Kentucky in this type of stage,” UH senior center Breaon Brady says. “I never imagined it would come though. We’re still going to imagine this game is just another game.”

That’s like pretending that Bruce Springsteen is just another guy with a guitar, Tim Tebow is just another minor league baseball player and Jennifer Aniston is just another California girl. It’s nice to say — and impossible to do.

Kentucky is Kentucky — and that means plenty to college basketball players who grew up when John Calipari had the hottest program in the land. The eight national championships (the last powered by Anthony Davis in 2012) are nice.

But it’s the pure star power of Calipari’s program (Wall, Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, Devin Booker, De’Aaron Fox, etc, etc..) that truly captures the imagination of today’s college player.

Kentucky can never be just another team to Corey Davis and friends. This is anything but just another matchup.

It’s Kentucky — and that’s extra intimidation and motivation in one starry package.

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