The date was March 27th, 2011.
My brother and I had just finished watching our 4th seeded Kentucky Wildcats knock off the 2nd seeded North Carolina Tarheels in thrilling fashion. As the realization that our beloved Wildcats were finally going back to the Final Four after 13 long years sank in, we screamed and jumped around like tweens at a Justin Bieber concert. Victory had never tasted much sweeter.
Flash forward to all but a year later and I’m sitting alone in my garage watching Kentucky dominate an over-matched Baylor team to reach their second straight Final Four. I had been confined to my “man cave” for poor behavior, as the weight of expectations had caused my scream-reflex to have a hairier trigger than most seasons.
As the minutes slowly ticked off the clock, there was no celebration in my solitary screen-room. There was only relief. This was expected, better yet, this was required.
With a roster stacked with at least 6 NBA players, Kentucky began this season as the 2nd rated team in the nation, trailing only the aforementioned Tarheels who combined similar NBA talent with “experience”. As the year progressed, we saw Heels and Orangemen fall to the wayside, and the Wildcats emerged as the “clear favorite” to win the title.
In a season that saw Kentucky beat the Tarheels, the Jayhawks, and the Cardinals OOC, they went 16-0 in the SEC. Going undefeated in a major conference hadn’t happened for anyone since the 2003. It became increasingly clear that this group was truly a notch above everyone else.
This year’s Kentucky team is such an over-whelming favorite to win it all that anything less than a shiny new National Title banner hanging in Rupp Arena will be deemed a failure. The expectations are so great, that we have writers like ESPN’s Myron Medcalf openly suggesting that it’s title or bust for the Cats.
Anything short of a national title for Kentucky will equal failure.
Let that sink in for a minute… In a sport where 68 teams are given equal opportunity to win the title, the Kentucky Wildcats are the only squad that can’t lose at any point and have their season deemed a success. It’s not just that they have the best shot to win the title. It’s that they have to win the title.
For a fanbase that’s only 3 seasons removed from the NIT, this sort of talk is sweet honey with a side of vinegar. This is what we wanted. We wanted to be on top. We wanted these expectations. In these waning hours of the greatest ball of all, though, doubt and paranoia can ruin the party.
We start projecting amazing powers on apathetic players like Perry Jones III, who probably cares as much about winning a tournament game as he does his next MWIII session on the XBox. We start imagining the taunts we will receive from opposing fanbases if we lose. “Biggest choke of all time”, they’ll say and we’ll be forced to agree with them.
So, like the hottest girl in school, there really are no excuses for this team not to be the homecoming queen. It’s all or it’s nothing. It’s the elation of a title 14 years in the making or it’s questioning the one-and-done philosophy and whether our coach is capable of winning the big one.
The Final Four isn’t enough, not this season. In short, in a year where Kentucky fans may experience their 8th National Title, there will be no joy riding along the way.