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 26, 2014, 10:22 PM EST
Through five games Louisville is shooting 24-for-105 from three. They’ll need to shoot better than that when Ohio State visits next Tuesday.
Nov 26, 2014, 9:11 PM EST
Sir’Dominic Pointer picked off Minnesota center Elliot Eliason’s outlet pass and made the big man pay for his mistake.
Nov 26, 2014, 8:05 PM EST
Justin Reed was one of America East’s best guards in each of his first two seasons, but that hasn’t been the case in 2014-15.
Nov 26, 2014, 6:42 PM EST
After launching 22 three-pointers in the first half, Oklahoma took a wiser approach to the offensive end of the floor as they outlasted No. 22 UCLA.
Nov 26, 2014, 5:29 PM EST
It’s hard to put too much stake in one loss, but there are a couple of things from this game that we need to keep an eye on.
Nov 26, 2014, 5:24 PM EST
Cameron Biedscheid averaged 6.2 points per game as a freshman at Notre Dame in 2012-13.
Nov 26, 2014, 4:37 PM EST
Joining Cullen Neal on the sideline is Arthur Edwards, who is expected to miss 4-6 weeks thanks to a dislocated finger.
Nov 26, 2014, 3:51 PM EST
The importance of this win for Butler cannot be overstated.
Nov 26, 2014, 3:19 PM EST
JayVaughn Pinkston is the leader and go-to guy for Villanova. And he is not their star because … why?
Nov 26, 2014, 12:02 PM EST
Gordon is averaging 10.5 points this season.
Nov 26, 2014, 11:20 AM EST
Not a bad way to kick off the Thanksgiving weekend
Nov 26, 2014, 9:00 AM EST
He was arrested on suspicion of sexual assault.
Nov 26, 2014, 7:00 AM EST
Angry John Beilein is the best John Beilein.
Nov 26, 2014, 12:28 AM EST
Pinkston made a couple of huge plays down the stretch.
Nov 26, 2014, 12:10 AM EST
Another busy night of college hoops as the Maui semifinals wrap up and Arkansas gets a statement road win.
Nov 25, 2014, 11:50 PM EST
Maryland pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the young season as they outplayed No. 13 Iowa State for much of the game in front of a pro-Cyclone crowd in Kansas City.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson’s selflessness during the Maui Invitational will help No. 3 Arizona in the long run
Nov 25, 2014, 10:18 PM EST
As Arizona has struggled to find consistent offense early in the 2014-15 season, the consistency and selfless nature of sophomore forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has allowed Sean Miller to experiment with what works early.
Nov 25, 2014, 7:45 PM EST
Kansas head coach Bill Self is trying to get through to his players by changing starting lineups.
Nov 25, 2014, 6:45 PM EST
The former national champion still has the touch.
Nov 25, 2014, 5:55 PM EST
The Barclays Center Classic doubleheader will air on Friday night on NBC Sports Network.
- Butler upsets No. 5 North Carolina in Battle 4 Atlantis opener 2
- If No. 12 Villanova doesn’t have a star on their roster, no one told JayVaughn Pinkston 0
- JayVaughn Pinkston’s block gives No. 12 Villanova a win over No. 19 Michigan (VIDEO) 2
- Maryland upsets No. 13 Iowa State as fearless freshmen mix with gritty veterans for balanced effort 3
- Rondae Hollis-Jefferson’s selflessness during the Maui Invitational will help No. 3 Arizona in the long run 0
- Player of the Year Power Rankings: A familiar face on top, but a few surprises behind him 0
- Ricky Doyle secures 70-63 win for No. 19 Michigan over Oregon in Legends Classic 0
- Poll: 54 percent of people think Kentucky beats the 76ers, 54 percent of people are dumb (31)
- Villanova’s win is evidence of why VCU may have peaked as a basketball program (14)
- Michigan’s John Beilein rips ESPN for late tip time during Tuesday’s loss (13)
- Rick Pitino on blow out win: ‘We played four white guys and an Egyptian’ (12)
- College Basketball Talk’s latest top 25: Kentucky reigns, but how far will Kansas, Florida slide? (5)