The name rings a bell. It’s OK, you can laugh about it. Sam Malone totally gets it.
Grow up an hour south of Boston as the namesake of the one of the most popular TV characters of the 1980s and 90s and you get used to the jokes even if you happened to be born just months before “Cheers” and Ted Danson — who played the former Red Sox pitcher turned womanizing barkeep that fetched beers for Norm, Cliff and all the rest — took its final bow.
That kind of affability helps when you spend four years on the end of the bench at Kentucky, a walk-on who rarely walks onto the court. The 23-year-old played all of 30 minutes during his career. He’s scored all of one point this year — a free throw against Montana State in November and hasn’t hit a basket since scoring against Radford on Nov. 23, 2011.
That’s a lot of sitting and watching, a lot of stool carrying, a lot of abuse from opposing fans. Malone has taken his role and embraced it, wearing a white headband during games to hold the explosion of wavy black hair atop the 5-foot-11 guard’s head. It makes him a target in opposing gyms, and he kind of likes it.
“There are some people, ‘Look at the kid on Kentucky with the headband? Does he think he’s going to play or something,” Malone said. “But basically it’s me just trolling people because I know I’m not going to play idiot. It’s always some guy who’s waited 10 hours to get tickets to the game and that kid is screaming at me? It’s always the goofiest kid doing it.”
There are worse lots in life than having the best seat in the house for Kentucky’s historic run. He could have gone to a lower-level Division I school and got some playing time, but he wouldn’t have a national title ring. He wouldn’t have buddies making millions in the NBA. He wouldn’t be a cult figure for one of college basketball’s most fervent fan bases.
He’ll graduate in May and then who knows? He wants to travel. There’s always business school. Maybe coaching. He’ll miss his teammates and the taunts. He’ll miss the times John Calipari yells “Malone” and sends him to the scorer’s table to check in. Who knows? His father Joe ran for the U.S. Senate against Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts in 1988. It didn’t work out. It hardly bothered his dad. Serving as a practice player for a dynasty is hardly something to complain about.
“Sometimes you miss playing in games but when you get in at the end and you’re up big, you don’t want it to end,” he said. “But really, it’s unbelievable. I wouldn’t trade it.”
IRISH GIANT SLAYERS: Notre Dame isn’t a basketball powerhouse, but they have a history of coming up with big wins playing against No. 1 ranked teams.
With undefeated Kentucky facing Notre Dame Saturday for a shot in the Final Four, it will be familiar territory for the Fighting Irish.
Notre Dame has beaten the No. 1 team eight times, including breaking UCLA’s 88-game winning streak in 1974. Notre Dame had been the last team to beat the Bruins, defeating the then-No. 1 team in 1971.
Notre Dame is in a four-way tie for fifth place for the most wins over the No. 1 team in the AP poll, behind North Carolina (13), Maryland (10), UCLA (10) and Duke (nine).
The other Notre Dame victories over the No. 1 team:
1977 San Francisco 93-82
1978 Marquette 65-59
1980 DePaul 76-74 (2OT)
1981 Virginia 57-56
1987 North Carolina 60-58
2012 Syracuse 67-58
ELITE EIGHT REMATCH: The West Region final will be a rematch between Wisconsin and Arizona.
That overtime game was played in Anaheim. Saturday’s final will be in the Staples Center in nearby Los Angeles.
Frank Kaminsky was the star of the 2014 game, scoring 28 points including six in overtime. He’s back. Arizona’s Nick Johnson, now with the Houston Rockets, missed a chance to win the game at the buzzer, ending the No. 1 seed’s season.
This year, Wisconsin — which lost the national semifinal on a last-second shot by Kentucky’s Aaron Harrison — is the No. 1 seed and Arizona is No. 2.
Both teams are seen as potential Kentucky busters, but only one will survive to get a potential shot at the undefeated Wildcats.
HUNGRY SHOCKER: Darius Carter was close enough to home to taste it.
Wichita State’s forward is from nearly Akron, about a 40-minute drive from Cleveland, where he and the Shockers will take on Notre Dame in one of Thursday’s Midwest Regional semifinals.
Carter is thrilled to be back in Northeast Ohio, especially because he will have a group of family members and friends at the Sweet 16 matchup.
“This is the closest I’ve played to home since I’ve been in college,” said Carter. “It means a lot because my family gets to come see me play, a lot of my family and friends have never seen my play a college game in person. My parents having to drive 15, 16 hours just to come watch me play.
“It means a lot just for them to be able to come and I can see them because I haven’t been home in a while.”
One of the things Carter most misses about home is Swenson’s, a local drive-in restaurant best known for its large hamburgers and extra-thick milkshakes.
While on the interview dais with his teammates, Carter made it known he was hungry for some home cooking.
“If somebody brings me some Swenson’s, I’ve sent a request out for someone to bring some, but I haven’t gotten any deliveries yet, so hopefully I can get my hands on some,” he said.
Swenson’s heard about his request and was ready to accommodate his hankering.
“We want to make dreams come true for Darius Carter & the rest of the team tonight, how many people are on the basketball team?” Swenson’s said on its Twitter feed.
JUDD’S HAT FAIL: Kentucky could do almost nothing wrong in its Sweet 16 game against West Virginia, racing out to a 44-18 halftime lead.
The Wildcats’ No. 1 celebrity fan, Ashley Judd, didn’t have her “A” game going while cheering from the stands, knocking the hat off her head while fisting pumping for her team.
Despite Judd’s hat fail, the Wildcats continued to pour it on against the Mountaineers, leading to a stream of tweets as the game wore on.
One particular target was West Virginia freshman Daxter Miles Jr., who made the mistake of predicting Kentucky would be 36-1 after Thursday night’s game, including one that said “Don’t poke the bear.”
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