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

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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.

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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.

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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.

Arizona lands Pitt transfer forward Ryan Luther

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Arizona landed a key addition for its frontcourt on Wednesday as Pitt transfer forward Ryan Luther pledged to the Wildcats.

The 6-foot-9 Luther is expected to receive a hardship waiver that would give him immediate eligibility, a source confirmed to NBCSports.com, as Arizona gets some much-needed help up front.

Playing in 10 games last season before a stress reaction in his right foot ended the season, Luther averaged 12.7 points and 10.1 rebounds per game for the Panthers. In his final game of the season, Luther went for 13 points and 12 rebounds in a Pitt loss to West Virginia. Luther shot 45 percent from the field and is a noted perimeter threat as he was 38 percent from behind the three-point line.

Luther hasn’t logged heavy minutes as a contributor through a full season. Mostly a role player at Pitt until last season, Luther was the team’s most productive player when he was on the floor. But that production also didn’t come during ACC play and through the course of a full season.

Thankfully at a program like Arizona, Luther should have a bit more help around him. He could be a nice addition to the Wildcats, particularly if he rebounds and spaces the floor in the frontcourt as he did at Pitt. Arizona needed someone like Luther to provide more stability after losing players like Deandre Ayton and Dusan Ristic.

In the last few weeks, Arizona has rebounded nicely to land three commitments for next season — including freshmen Devonaire Doutrive and Omar Thielemans. The group isn’t as heralded as some past Arizona recruiting efforts. Given where the Wildcats were in recruiting a few weeks ago, however, this isn’t a bad turnaround.

TCU extends Jamie Dixon’s contract by two more years

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TCU has given head coach Jamie Dixon a two-year contract extension through the 2023-24 season, according to a release from the school.

Dixon took the Horned Frogs to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 20 years this season as he’s done a great job of turning around his alma mater. The release also notes that TCU had the highest average attendance in program history this season. Fans are also taking notice of a revitalized team.

With back-to-back 20-win seasons and postseason appearances, Dixon and TCU have a lot of positive momentum going on right now. The two-year extension for Dixon should help a bit in recruiting when it comes to overall stability, as well, as he’s been able to attract some quality talent so far.

Report: Kevin Ollie claims UConn violated rights with firing

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Fired former UConn head coach Kevin Ollie is claiming that the school violated his constitutional rights during his departure.

Ollie sent a letter to UConn school president Susan Herbst which was obtained by ESPN’s Myron Medcalf in a report released on Wednesday. Ollie’s lawyers are claiming the school proceeded with his firing before giving Ollie a proper chance to contest his termination — which was guaranteed in his contract and also the collective bargaining agreement with the University of Connecticut’s branch of the American Association of University Professors. Ollie was fired, with cause, in late March as the school mentioned an NCAA inquiry as the reason why. According to Medcalf’s report, the NCAA has not sent a notice of allegations to the school.

Ollie’s union membership includes thousands of faculty members around the country as the collective bargaining agreement demands a hearing process before any employee can be terminated for allegations of serious misconduct. Ollie claims he didn’t receive a letter he was supposed to get to begin the termination process.

“From our review of the facts and circumstances relating to Coach Ollie’s employment status, it is apparent that the University of Connecticut has already violated [Coach Ollie’s] rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution by subverting Coach Ollie’s opportunity to respond to charges and evidence in a meaningful way in advance of the decision to terminate his employment,” said the letter dated April 3.

“The public record, action taken, and authorized communications by representatives of the University of Connecticut, demonstrate that the decision to terminate Coach Ollie has already been made and therefore the University of Connecticut has effectively negated Coach Ollie’s property right protected by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.”

This letter to UConn likely begins a long legal battle to try to get an eight-figure payout back as Ollie is going to do everything he can to clear his name.

South Carolina’s Brian Bowen, still ineligible, to declare for draft

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Former Louisville forward and current South Carolina Gamecock Brian Bowen will declare for the NBA draft without signing with an agent as a safety measure in case the NCAA does not clear him to play in the 2018-19 season.

Bowen is the former top 25 prospect that was forced to leave the Louisville program after the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college hoops turned up evidence that his family had accepted the first payment of what was supposed to be a $100,000 fee to get him to be a Cardinal.

That investigation was ultimately what got Rick Pitino fired.

“I just felt that it was the right decision,” Bowen told ESPN. “My goal is still to play college basketball, but I felt as though it makes sense to cover my bases.”

Bowen is in a tough spot right now.

On the one hand, he has already missed an entire season of college basketball and there is no guarantee that he will be cleared to play next season, if at all.

On the other hand, the fact that he has not played in a year and that he has not played against any collegiate level competition is one of the reasons that NBA front offices are going to be hesitant to draft him, and that’s not a good thing for a player that was considered a second round pick before he spent a year on the sidelines.

North Carolina’s Cam Johnson undergoes hip surgery

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For the second time in the last six months, North Carolina wing Cam Johnson has undergone the knife.

On Wednesday, North Carolina announced that Johnson underwent an arthroscopic procedure on his hip on Monday, and that he is expected to make a full recovery and return to school in time for the start of the 2018-19 season.

The 6-foot-9 Johnson was UNC’s third-leading scorer a season ago, averaging 12.4 points while shooting 34.1 percent from three. He only played 26 games, however, after missing time due to a surgery to fix a torn meniscus.