Mar 14, 2012, 9:16 AM EST
Even for Kentucky, this was a rare season.
The Wildcats won 30 games in the regular season, rolled through the SEC regular season with a 16-0 mark and spent 10 weeks atop the polls. Freshman center Anthony Davis is the front-runner for national player of the year and coach John Calipari’s scooped up a few honors of his own.
Maybe that’s why Sunday’s loss to Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament final rankled Big Blue Nation a bit. Losing for the first time in 24 games – not since Dec. 10 – as the NCAA tournament looms is hardly the way to begin a quest for what’s really the only acceptable ending in the Bluegrass State this season.
“This year, anything short of a national title would be seen as a disappointment among the Big Blue Nation,” says Glenn Logan, managing editor of A Sea of Blue, a popular Kentucky blog.” That’s probably unfair considering the overall youth of this team, but when you go out and win 30 games in the regular season, I think stratospheric expectations are reasonable and frankly, unavoidable.”
It’s title or bust. It’s that simple.
This is the most talented team Kentucky has seen since the 1996 team that featured nine future NBA players, dominated throughout the season and finished 34-2. It didn’t have anyone with Davis’ incredible talent, but John Clay of the Lexington Herald-Leader says it was “deeper and meaner.”
Clay knows his Kentucky hoops, too. He’s been at the Herald-Leader the last 30 years and a columnist since 2000. He says this year’s team is better than the 2009-10 version that featured John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, two lottery picks who helped UK win 35 games. It’s better than the 2002-03 “Suffocats” who boasted a 16-0 SEC record. Davis and wing Michael Kidd-Gilchrist could be the top two picks in the 2012 NBA draft. Sophomore Terrence Jones is also a lottery pick.
When you roll out those superlatives, sky-high expectations will follow. Luckily for Kentucky, Calipari knows this.
The loss to Vanderbilt provides the perfect motivational tool because it humbles and focuses the players at once. Plus, it’s easier to shrug off the media attention as hype.
“[Calipari] thought we were getting full of ourselves,” senior Darius Miller told the Louisville Courier-Journal after the loss. “This kind of brought us back to reality, that we can be beat. I felt like we knew that from the beginning. He might’ve been right, though. There were times we went back on film and it kind of looked that way.”
That’s how one must approach a single-game elimination tournament. Even dominant teams can fall short of the Final Four – Kansas and Ohio State last year – let alone not cut down the nets. That’s a prospect that Kentucky doesn’t even want to consider.
“We’re taking every team serious,” freshman point guard Marquis Teague told the paper. “We’re not really worried about that loss anymore. We’ve got something bigger on our minds now.”
Music to the ears of Big Blue Nation.
So, what will it take to cut down the nets in New Orleans?
Kentucky’s road to the Final Four is rated by both Ken Pomeroy and Luke Winn as the easiest among any of the one seeds. And if simply making the final weekend is half chore, that’s a start. Navigating the likes of Iowa State/UConn, then Wichita State and probably Baylor should be manageable. The Wildcats (32-2) possess significant size and skill advantages against all of those teams except perhaps Baylor. (The Bears’ frontcourt is tall, but usually soft.)
Those last two games are tricky. UConn negated Kentucky’s 3-point shooting last season thanks to a nasty defense (and maybe some ‘Cat nerves). This year’s squad boasts a slightly better offense despite shooting slightly worse from beyond the arc. It’s not as one-dimensional.
There’s no real weaknesses. Thus, the high expectations among the fans. They can almost taste this title, which would be Kentucky’s eighth.
Expectations aren’t like this every season. “I can remember many years when Kentucky fans were, or would have been, pretty happy with a Final Four — like last year, for example,” Logan says. But this is a special group. That’s been evident all season, whether it’s been during wins against North Carolina or beating Florida by 20.
Combine that with the time since the Wildcats’ last championship – 1998, an eternity in Kentucky – and it creates a fever pitch.
Mostly. Clay says the all-or-nothing question misses the mark ever so slightly.
“I don’t know that it will be seen as a failure, but it will be a tremendous heartbreak. Kentucky fans all but live — no, they do live — for that eighth banner,” he says. “To have a team they think is more than capable of winning it all, to go through the SEC undefeated, to lose the conference tourney final and still be ranked No. 1, to be the overall No. 1 seed, and then not win it would be excruciating.”
A Final Four won’t cut it. Only a title will do.
You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.
Nov 23, 2014, 12:00 PM EST
One of the best unsigned players in the 2015 class is down to three schools but then visited another school on Friday night.
Nov 23, 2014, 11:00 AM EST
Looks like Larry Nance Jr. is fully recovered from last season’s ACL injury.
Division III school makes buzzer-beating three-pointer against same opponent in back-to-back years (VIDEOS)
Nov 23, 2014, 10:00 AM EST
This is one of the wildest buzzer-beaters I’ve ever seen and the back story makes it that much more incredible.
Nov 23, 2014, 9:10 AM EST
Tournament action resumes on a busy Sunday of college hoops.
Nov 23, 2014, 3:56 AM EST
Concerns about Cook moving off the ball seem foolish through five games.
Nov 23, 2014, 2:00 AM EST
No. 21 Nebraska was the lone ranked team to fall on Saturday, but give them credit for being willing to go on the road to play a dangerous opponent.
Nov 23, 2014, 12:05 AM EST
Devin Davis has been rehabbing from injuries suffered on November 1 in his hometown of Indianapolis.
Nov 22, 2014, 11:33 PM EST
Most people already knew that Winslow’s a high-level athlete. Here’s some evidence for those who somehow didn’t.
Nov 22, 2014, 11:22 PM EST
Before their game against No. 21 Nebraska, Rhode Island took the floor in shirts honoring Avery Harriman.
Nov 22, 2014, 9:44 PM EST
Florida faces Georgetown in the opening round of the Battle 4 Atlantis Wednesday.
Nov 22, 2014, 9:37 PM EST
The score was tied 41-41 with six minutes to go. Rams and Cornhuskers traded the lead five times after that.
Nov 22, 2014, 8:06 PM EST
Wyoming may have scored just 56 points, but all 22 of their made field goals were assisted and they shot nearly 53 percent from the field.
Nov 22, 2014, 6:17 PM EST
Boutte’s shot came seconds after he corralled a wayward pass from teammate Marcellus Barksdale.
Nov 22, 2014, 5:43 PM EST
Eustachy led the Rams to a school-record 26 wins in 2012-13.
Nov 22, 2014, 4:58 PM EST
Meeks accounted for two double-doubles all season in 2013-14. He’s now matched that total through three games.
Nov 22, 2014, 4:46 PM EST
Providence jumped out to a quick 9-0 lead and cruised to an easy win over Florida State.
Nov 22, 2014, 2:30 PM EST
Notre Dame guards Demetrius Jackson and Jerian Grant played well to help lead the Irish to victory.
Nov 22, 2014, 1:40 PM EST
The 2015 CBE Classic will have a local flavor.
Nov 22, 2014, 12:30 PM EST
Ball State will be without a key piece for the immediate future.
Nov 22, 2014, 11:30 AM EST
Florida will be without a key guard for at least a few games.
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