SPARKS AND RECREATION: Bluegrass boys are back in town

I am sending a special thank you to Trent Noah after the holiday weekend.

The Harlan County guard’s decision to change his future college plans was met with delight all across the commonwealth and by a special person in Gulfport, Mississippi.

Noah will wear the Blue and White next season and it allowed me to give my mom an early Mother’s Day present when I texted her the news on Wednesday.

And before you question my motives, she did receive a card and gift from me but I took notice of the excitement from this born-again sports fan. Many of our conversations now involve sports, including how the Braves — my mom’s favorite team — played the night before or to remind me what channel the Celtics are playing on.

Of course, I already knew that information, but I appreciated the gesture.

The same exhilaration resonated during Mark Pope’s introductory press conference last month. Not only do we have a former alum, team captain and national champion guiding the ship but we’ll have not one, but two elite high school players staying home to play for the Wildcats.

Mom was admittingly disappointed when Reed Sheppard left after one season but with his draft expectations rising at season’s end, she accepted his choice. She just wanted to see a pair of Kentucky boys in the backcourt next season. Mom still gets her wish.

The mindset seemed to be shared with 24,000-plus at Rupp Arena on April 14. You don’t often see a crowd of that size show up for an introductory press conference. Forget Texas. Everything is bigger at Kentucky.

The renewed energy inside that building seemed to bring an entire fanbase back to life. The Big Blue heart was still beating but needed new blood pumped back into its veins.

Bringing back one of our own and keeping the best players in the bluegrass from looking elsewhere signified a much-needed fresh start.

Kentucky became mired in postseason quicksand after 2019. The following season was canceled due to a pandemic. The Cats did not make the dance in 2021 and only won one NCAA Tournament game in the next three years.

The Groundhog-Day atmosphere had run its course. Bragging about a top recruiting class didn’t seem to matter much when you don’t win tournament games. “I feel good about the group coming in next year” or “We are just young” became a broken record that spun on our roundball turntable long after the party had ended.

The world of college basketball has changed. John Calipari did not want to change with it. The one-and-done recruiting system brought Kentucky success in the early years. Elite Eight and Final Four appearances. A national championship and an enjoyable undefeated season until a Wisconsin team foiled the dream.

With NIL money and the transfer portal, you’re only guaranteed one season with any player. A No. 1 recruiting class doesn’t mean riches in the postseason. Bragging about the number of players who became first-round draft picks carries no weight when you’ve become one-and-done in the NCAA Tournament.

I can’t imagine Pope cares about Kentucky’s standing on recruiting boards. He goes after the ideal player that fits his system and appreciates the jersey he wears every night. He’ll go after top-ranked recruits too. It would be silly not to. I’d look for him to secure several big names in the future.

Pope gets what it means to play for a school that you and your family grew up watching, and spent nights in the driveway dreaming that one day you could have Kentucky across your chest.

Pope and Wildcats fans get that with Travis Perry and Trent Noah.

“At its heart, Big Blue Nation is nostalgia,” Pope said in The Atlantic. “It is the emotion that you feel when you’re in the gym cheering for the team with your family, with your friends, the way you mark the moments of your life by what the Cats did that year or that night. I don’t want to just put it out like, ‘Oh, it’s just nostalgia.’ Because that’s the essence of Kentucky basketball.”

It helps that the duo are two of the most elite scorers in Kentucky basketball history. Perry remains at the top with his 5,481 career points. He became the 10th player to amass 5,000 points nationally before guiding Lyon County to a state title.

Noah is Kentucky’s fifth all-time leading scorer with 3,707 points. He averaged 30 points a game this season and had a stellar state tournament, leading Harlan County to the state finals. He made a state-record 19 3s during the Sweet Sixteen and produced a 48-point game against Campbell County in the quarterfinals.

“Trent Noah is one of the elite shooters in this class,” Pope said. “He is a tough, hard-nosed player with a special physicality. As an eastern Kentucky native, Trent will bring a grit, toughness and determination to the program that is representative of this state.”

Noah, a 6-foot-6 guard, made 43% of his 3-pointers this year. The stats and numbers are impressive but when we first see No. 2 and No. 11 suit up for the Big Blue, it will be a momentous night.

Noah and Perry have played together and against each other. Having a familiar face with a similar love for UK basketball can help with the transition.

“Now that we’re on the same side, we’re working toward the same goal,” Noah said to Kentucky Sports Radio. “We’re trying to hang No. 9 together. To finally be on the same team, it is really special. That’s one of the first people that I texted after (my decision), and I’m just super excited to get to work with him.”

Perry and Noah appeared high on recruiting boards. They were ranked 72nd and 103rd by 247Sports, respectively. They will join a veteran that Pope has assembled from the transfer portal, including a guard with Final Four experience, the Mountain West and Colonial Athletic Conference Defensive Players of the Year, a bevy of starters from Power 5 teams, a McDonald’s All-American and the NCAA’s reigning 3-point percentage leader. Not a shabby first month for the next coach.

Perry and Noah’s arrival at Kentucky can influence in-state recruiting for seasons to come by instilling newfound confidence in players here at home.

“It gave Kentucky kids a lot of hope,” Harlan County coach Kyle Jones said. “Little kids growing up playing basketball know that they have a chance, if they work, one day to play at Kentucky.”

You can never fault a kid for making the best decision for themselves when choosing their college path. Many of the players from our area are destined to compete at the next level and will find the best location to suit their needs.

The same applies to all state colleges. Don’t forget northeastern Kentucky.

But if you meet the standard and play at a high level here, Kentucky should always come calling. Competitors and elite players like Trent Noah and former Mason County great Chris Lofton should never leave the state lines.

The Wildcats have reached out to several Kentucky players in the past with positive results. Perry will become the sixth Mr. Basketball to sign with Kentucky since 2008, joining Dontaie Allen, Dominique Hawkins, Jon Hood, Darius Miller and Sheppard. But it doesn’t happen often enough.

Let’s start a new trend and keep the bluegrass boys in Blue and White.

Hope all the mothers had an amazing holiday. You are celebrated the entire year.