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.
Mar 27, 2015, 5:00 PM EDT
The 6-foot-7 forward has two years of eligibility left.
Mar 27, 2015, 3:36 PM EDT
Rick Barnes has been with Texas for 17 seasons.
Mar 27, 2015, 2:39 PM EDT
Lavin had been with the St. John’s program for five years.
Mar 27, 2015, 1:31 PM EDT
Prohm was one of the hottest names on the coaching carousel.
Mar 27, 2015, 1:15 PM EDT
Nigel Hayes has become a national sensation this tournament.
Mar 27, 2015, 12:43 PM EDT
Two transfers in one week is not a good thing.
Mar 27, 2015, 11:20 AM EDT
It’s pretty cool to see this process in action.
Mar 27, 2015, 10:31 AM EDT
Forbes spent two years as an assistant at Wichita State.
Mar 27, 2015, 9:08 AM EDT
Tennessee has parted ways with head coach Donnie Tyndall after only one season.
Tourney Snacks: Kentucky, Notre Dame win in Midwest; Arizona, Wisconsin advance to set up Elite Eight rematch
Mar 27, 2015, 1:45 AM EDT
The Elite Eight will feature a rematch in the West Regional between Arizona and Wisconsin and Kentucky battling Notre Dame in the Midwest Regional.
Mar 27, 2015, 1:00 AM EDT
Kentucky’s win also means that the Big 12 is down to one team: Oklahoma.
Mar 27, 2015, 12:59 AM EDT
Arizona played slightly better on both ends of the floor in the second half, and they’ll take on No. 1 Wisconsin as a result.
Mar 27, 2015, 12:48 AM EDT
If you are going to talk, you better be able to back it up
Mar 27, 2015, 12:19 AM EDT
The schedule for Saturday has been released.
Mar 27, 2015, 12:11 AM EDT
Jalen Reynolds dunks everything he gets his hands on, it seems.
Mar 27, 2015, 12:06 AM EDT
No. 1 Kentucky looked completely dominant in an easy win over No. 5 West Virginia.
Mar 27, 2015, 12:03 AM EDT
This is nasty.
Mar 26, 2015, 9:59 PM EDT
After Dekker scored 15 points in the first half, Kaminksy scored 15 in the second half for the Badgers.
Mar 26, 2015, 9:24 PM EDT
It’s Notre Dame’s first Elite 8 since 1979.
Mar 26, 2015, 7:30 PM EDT
New Mexico is losing a wing.
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