Kentucky’s daunting task of a title-or-bust is ‘unavoidable’


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.

See what NC State freshman did to Abdul-Malik Abu’s arm

SYRACUSE, NY - FEBRUARY 27:  Abdul-Malik Abu #0 of the North Carolina State Wolfpack drives to the basket as DaJuan Coleman #32 of the Syracuse Orange defends during the first half on February 27, 2016 at The Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York.  (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
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Rebounding can be a war at times. Even when it involves teammates.

NC State junior forward Abdul-Malik Abu, one of the best rebounders in the nation, showed up to ACC Media Day in Washington, D.C. earlier this week with battle scars from a recent drill with freshman forward Ted Kapita.

“When you’re battling for rebounds, there’s a lot of hand movements,” Abu said, according to Aaron Beard of the Associated Press. “And he has nails, so he’s just kind of like slicing through.”

Abu told reporters he had the first-year forward cut his nails shortly after the incident.

The 6-foot-8 Abu, the ACC’s top returning rebounder, averaged 12.9 points, 8.8 boards and 1.3 rebounds per game as a sophomore last season. Kapita is ranked as four-star recruit by Rivals.

The Wolfpack were picked to finish sixth in the loaded ACC.

Dana Altman: “No idea” if Dillon Brooks will be ready for season opener

ANAHEIM, CA - MARCH 24:  Dillon Brooks #24 of the Oregon Ducks dunks the ball in the first half while taking on the Duke Blue Devils in the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament West Regional at the Honda Center on March 24, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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Oregon enters the 2016-17 season as a projected top-5 team. A lot of those lofty expectations are dependent on the health of Dillon Brooks, an All-American caliber forward heading his junior year.

Brooks had surgery on his foot this offseason and is still not back at practice yet for the Ducks. Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports spoke to Oregon head coach Dana Altman on Thursday. Altman is uncertain if he’ll have his star forward on the floor when the season tips in a few weeks.

“I have no idea,” Altman told FanRag Sports on Thursday when he was asked if Brooks would be ready for the season opener. “He’s out of the boot and he’s doing some non-contact stuff, but we still don’t know. He has another meeting scheduled with the doctor next week and we’ll go from there.”

The Ducks graduated Elgin Cook and Dwayne Benjamin, but retained four starters, including rim protectors Chris Boucher and Jordan Bell, as well as Tyler Dorsey, who was third on the team in scoring as a freshman. They also add another ball handler in Dylan Ennis, who missed all but two games last season with a foot injury of his own.

But with a healthy Brooks, a nightmare matchup at a physical 6-foot-7, Oregon is a legitimate national championship contender.

Oregon begins the season on Nov. 11 against Army. Then after that, a meeting with arguably the best mid-major, Valparaiso, is sandwiched in between a pair of games with two potentially dangerous high-major teams in Baylor and Georgetown. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Pac-12 favorite, minus its star forward, could be slow out of the gates in 2016-17.

Mark Turgeon receives an extension from Maryland

SPOKANE, WA - MARCH 18: Head coach Mark Turgeon of the Maryland Terrapins looks on against the South Dakota State Jackrabbits in the first half during the first round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena on March 18, 2016 in Spokane, Washington.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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The University of Maryland announced on Thursday that Mark Turgeon’s contract would be extended through the 2022-23 season.

This adds four years to his previous deal. Turgeon is entering his sixth season at Maryland.

“I want to thank President [Wallace] Loh and [Director of Athletics] Kevin Anderson for their continued commitment and support of our program,” Turgeon said in a statement. “I am in this position because of the talented coaches and student-athletes that I have had the opportunity to work with over the past five years. Their commitment to our program is why Maryland Basketball continues to have an exciting and bright future.”

Once on the hot seat, Turgeon has gotten the Terrapins to back-to-back NCAA Tournaments, the latter resulting in a spot in the Sweet 16. It was the first time in a decade he had reached the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, previously leading Wichita State to the Sweet 16 in 2006.

Maryland, a preseason top-25 team, lost four starters — Robert Carter Jr., Jake Layman, Diamond Stone and Rasheed Suliamon — from a season ago. But the Terps do retain Melo Trimble, one of the top lead guards in the nation, for his junior year.  Trimble will be surrounded by Damonte Dodd, Dion Wiley, Jaren Nickens, Duquesne grad transfer L.G. Gill and a quartet of four-star freshmen.

NBC Sports projected Maryland to finish sixth in the Big 10 this season.

RIP Vine: The best college basketball vines

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Today, Twitter announced that they are sending Vine – the six-second, looping videos that made so many people famous and so many things viral – into hospice care.

The social media service that helped usher in an era of Instagram videos, SnapChat and FaceBook live will not be a thing for much longer.

And that’s a shame.

Because there really was nothing better than a well-executed vine.

In remembrance, we are offering up the most memorable college basketball vines for your viewing pleasure (if we’ve missed any, leave a link in the comments or share it with us @CBTonNBC):

Kris Jenkins winning a title

Tony Parker kicking game at Allie LaForce

A quadruple ball-screen

Marshall Henderson is confused


The Wall of Distraction getting it done

Bill Self breaking his own watch

Dyshawn Pierre getting pantsed

You may never see a better dunk than this

Tom Crean doing Tom Crean things

Thad Matta being thrilled to see Tom Crean

Speaking of Coach Matta, what’s he been on, Amir?

Sterling Brown knew this shot was good

I still have no idea what Stephen Zimmerman is doing here

He mad

That time Jamal Murray murdered his teammate

That time Willie Cauley-Stein murdered a defender

That other time Willie Cauley-Stein murdered a defender

Georges Niang blowing a kiss to the Iowa student section

And not everyone likes him for it

That time Jarmal Reid tripped a ref

A world class flop from Armani Moore


Motor-Boatright Me

Florida walk-on Jacob Kurtz tipping in a buzzer-beater for … Florida State?

VIDEO: Listen to Tom Izzo speak at the funeral of Detroit columnist

Tom Izzo
AP Photo/Paul Beaty
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Drew Sharp, a longtime columnist for the Detroit-Free Press, died suddenly last week after attending Michigan State’s media day.

His funeral was on Thursday, and Tom Izzo, one of the people that Sharp covered, spoke at his funeral. The coach’s words were touching and sincere and worth listening to: