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.
Jan 31, 2015, 11:15 AM EST
Raheem Appleby showed surprising hops as the 6-foot-4 guard threw down a solid dunk over a Western Kentucky defender.
Jan 31, 2015, 10:10 AM EST
Louisville head coach Rick Pitino believes one of his underclassmen will definitely leave for the NBA.
Pregame Shootaround: Duke battles Virginia and Wichita State gets its biggest Valley test on a busy Saturday
Jan 31, 2015, 9:00 AM EST
Duke and Virginia highlights a busy Saturday slate.
Jan 30, 2015, 11:01 PM EST
Here is a rundown of all the action from Friday night.
Jan 30, 2015, 9:30 PM EST
The Jayhawks will wear these on Feb. 28.
Jan 30, 2015, 7:45 PM EST
That rivalry ended when Mizzou left the Big 12 in favor of the SEC.
Jan 30, 2015, 6:30 PM EST
Trey Davis left the court with only seconds remaining after colliding into a Kendall Pollard screen.
Jan 30, 2015, 5:45 PM EST
The backup guard has missed the last five games.
Jan 30, 2015, 5:09 PM EST
“Big Country,” Randy Rutherford and the rest of the squad is expected back for the team’s game against Kansas to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their trip to the Final Four.
Jan 30, 2015, 4:04 PM EST
Bruce Pearl expressed remorse over how his tenure at Tennessee ended and also remains thankful for former Tennessee AD Mike Hamilton.
Jan 30, 2015, 2:47 PM EST
Having already lost one game in Ivy League play, Harvard looks to bounce back with a win at Princeton.
Jan 30, 2015, 12:50 PM EST
Aaron White suffered a stinger in Iowa’s loss to Purdue, and Gabe Olaseni is dealing with a sprained ankle suffered Monday.
Jan 30, 2015, 11:43 AM EST
The donation will be used to improve the basketball offices and practice facility, with leftover funds being used for any improvements that may need to be made down the line.
Jan 30, 2015, 11:00 AM EST
Kansas’ incredibly rigorous schedule moves them to the top line in the latest update.
Jan 30, 2015, 10:35 AM EST
Thursday’s loss was a reminder of the fact that these current Utah players are still getting used to being the “hunted.”
Jan 30, 2015, 9:50 AM EST
While D’Angelo Russell gets most of the attention (and rightfully so), another freshman has stepped forward in the last two games for the Buckeyes.
Jan 30, 2015, 9:02 AM EST
The Super Bowl isn’t the only high-octane action we’ll see this weekend.
Jan 30, 2015, 12:19 AM EST
With Shannon Scott being a senior and D’Angelo Russell considered to be a possible lottery pick if he goes pro, JaQuan Lyle’s commitment is a nice insurance policy moving forward.
Jan 29, 2015, 10:57 PM EST
Ike Nwamu scored 20 points in the Bears’ 75-72 overtime win over Chattanooga, but should he have two (or three) more points to his credit?
Jan 29, 2015, 9:38 PM EST
Providence’s Kris Dunn posted the program’s first triple-double since 2006, and UMass held off Dayton in Amherst.
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- Film Session: The case for Jerian Grant as National Player of the Year 1
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