Mar 14, 2012, 9:16 AM EDT
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.
Apr 19, 2014, 6:24 PM EDT
Arizona State has made another addition to its roster, landing a commitment from former UNLV forward Savon Goodman.
Apr 19, 2014, 5:45 PM EDT
Forward Zach LeDay has decided to leave the USF program after spending two seasons in Tampa.
Apr 19, 2014, 5:00 PM EDT
New Florida A&M AD Kellen Winslow Sr. has already decided that the basketball program needs a new leader, as head coach Clemon Johnson was relieved of his duties Friday.
Apr 19, 2014, 4:25 PM EDT
Will highly-touted Colombian center Tonny Trocha-Morelos finally be joining the Texas A&M program?
Apr 19, 2014, 2:39 PM EDT
Michigan had some open scholarships following the 2014 NBA Draft departures of Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III and they filled one of those on Saturday with a commitment from senior guard Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman.
Apr 19, 2014, 1:25 PM EDT
Gonzaga will have a very tough non-conference slate during the 2014-15 season.
Apr 19, 2014, 12:10 PM EDT
Two-and-through sounds more and more likely to happen.
Apr 19, 2014, 10:30 AM EDT
Former Marquette commits Ahmed Hill and Satchel Pierce are following former Golden Eagles coach Buzz Williams to Virginia Tech as the duo committed to the Hokies on Saturday morning.
POSTERIZED: SMU commit Emmanuel Mudiay flushes a ridiculous alley-oop during Jordan Brand Classic (VIDEO)
Apr 19, 2014, 10:03 AM EDT
SMU commit Emmanuel Mudiay put down the best dunk at the Jordan Brand Classic.
Apr 18, 2014, 11:20 PM EDT
Northern Illinois extended the contract of head coach Mark Montgomery through the 2017-18 season.
Chicago duo Jahlil Okafor, Cliff Alexander earn MVP honors as East beats West in Jordan Brand Classic
Apr 18, 2014, 9:39 PM EDT
Chicago natives Jahlil Okafor and Cliff Alexander earned MVP honors as the East beat the West in the Jordan Brand Classic.
Apr 18, 2014, 8:40 PM EDT
Houston is allowing Danuel House and TaShawn Thomas to transfer, but only to certain programs.
Apr 18, 2014, 7:31 PM EDT
Indiana grabbed a commitment from a 2014 center on Friday night.
Apr 18, 2014, 6:59 PM EDT
Miami forward James Kelly is moving on.
Apr 18, 2014, 5:45 PM EDT
It was a busy day for the Butler Bulldogs on Friday as freshman guard Elijah Brown intends to transfer while former Indiana wing Austin Etherington will transfer to the Big East program.
Apr 18, 2014, 5:05 PM EDT
Ole Miss picked up a big graduate transfer on Friday when former Tennessee State forward M.J. Rhett signed with the Rebels.
Apr 18, 2014, 4:44 PM EDT
St. John’s received some big news this week as sophomore center Chris Obekpa decided to stay in New York.
Apr 18, 2014, 4:26 PM EDT
Kentucky freshman forward Marcus Lee will return to Lexington for his sophomore season.
Apr 18, 2014, 4:03 PM EDT
After leading Georgia State to 25 wins and a Sun Belt regular season title, Ron Hunter has been rewarded with a contract extension.
Apr 18, 2014, 3:46 PM EDT
With Steve Wojciechowski accepting the head coaching position at Marquette, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski announced how he would account for that departure Friday.
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