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.

CBT PODCAST: Indiana, UCLA, Ben Simmons and Thanksgiving sides

Ben Simmons
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New podcast!

In today’s episode, we talk quite a bit about Ben Simmons. How good of a prospect is he? Why do people insist on calling him overrated? Does LSU actually have a shot at missing the NCAA tournament?

[MORE: Why scouts are down on Simmons]

[MORE: Will Simmons be relevant in March?]

We also talk about Indiana’s disappointing showing in Maui, just how good Vanderbilt and Kansas have looked, Marquette’s ability to bounce back and whether or not we should be concerned about North Carolina and Maryland.

Oh, and Thanksgiving sides.

Do people really call stuffing ‘dressing’?

As always, you can subscribe to the podcast in iTunes right here.

PREGAME SHOOTAROUND: Kansas-Vandy in Maui, rivalries renewed in Bahamas

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GAME OF THE NIGHT: No. 19 Vanderbilt vs. No. 5 Kansas, 10:00 p.m.

The title game of the Maui Invitational pits the two best teams in the tournament, as it should. Outside of the final 10 minutes of their loss to Michigan State, the Jayhawks have looked terrific this season. And while Selden was not at his best against the Spartans, he looked awesome in two games in Maui. Vanderbilt, on the other hand, is a tough team for them to matchup with, especially without time to prepare. They are loaded with shooters who surround Damian Jones, one of the best big men in the country. Combine all that with Kevin Stallings’ play-calling, and the ‘Dores are tough.

This should be appointment television.

THIS ONE’S GOOD, TOO: No. 18 UConn vs. Michigan, 9:30 p.m.

The best matchup in the first round of the Battle 4 Atlantis pits two teams with terrific guard play that have question marks along their front court. The best individual matchup of the day may end up being Caris LeVert squaring off with Daniel Hamilton.


1. No. 10 Gonzaga vs. Washington, 12:00 p.m.: The Zags and their loaded front line get their first real test of the season against a Washington team that has been surprisingly good this year. This rivalry should be played every year. I wonder if it’s a coincidence they got matched up in the first round?

2. No. 13 Indiana vs. UNLV 5:00 p.m.: The Hoosiers have been a major disappointment out in Maui, while UNLV will look to bounce back after a loss to UCLA in their opener. Will Stephen Zimmerman be healthy enough to play?

3. Texas vs. No. 25 Texas A&M, 7:00 p.m.: All kinds of rivalries are being renewed out in the Bahamas. Another coincidence, I’m sure.

4. No. 2 Maryland at Rhode Island, 8:30 p.m.: The Terps have struggled their last two games against the likes of Illinois State and Rider. They can’t mess around against a quality team like URI.

5. Yale at No. 6 Duke, 7:00 p.m.: Yale nearly upset SMU at SMU. Duke is a different beast, but keep an eye on the Elis.


  • Lehigh at No. 12 Virginia, 7:00 p.m.
  • Arkansas State at No. 21 Oregon, 7:00 p.m.


  • Syracuse vs. Charlotte, 2:30 p.m.
  • Wake Forest vs. UCLA, 7:30 p.m.