John Calipari spent much of last week explaining that his team is merely "playing basketball games" and not thinking about the NCAA tournament, and that if they play well but don't win a title that'll have to be just fine.
But that's not true.
I honestly can't remember the last time one man (Calipari) and one team (Kentucky) had this much pressure on them to cut nets on the first Monday in April. Anything less will be viewed as a massive disappointment and, deep down, Calipari and his players must know it. They're two wins away from securing a legacy as one of the best teams of the modern era and just one loss away from being mocked forever. Those are the stakes. There is no in-between.
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Why they won't: An elite John Calipari team is always just one bad shooting performance away from losing to an inferior opponent in the NCAA tournament. It's how his Memphis team lost to UCLA in the 2006 Elite Eight as a No. 1 seed and how his Kentucky team lost to West Virginia in the 2010 Elite Eight as a No. 1 seed. Granted, this team shoots it better than those teams. But what happens if the Wildcats throw up a 6-of-28 effort from beyond the arc against Louisville or Kansas or Ohio State in New Orleans like it threw up against Vanderbilt in New Orleans a few weeks back? Answer: They'll lose. Again. And then it's all over.
Player to watch: Anthony Davis is the current CBSSports.com National Player of the Year and future No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft. He dunks everything on one end and blocks (or alters) everything on the other, and lately he's been making jumpers, too, which really isn't fair. The 6-foot-11 big is averaging 14.3 points, 10.1 rebounds and 4.6 blocks per game. He's the biggest game-changer in the sport and the main reason UK is one of college basketball's most efficient teams on offense and defense.
Best off the bench: Darius Miller is the Wildcats' lone senior and only reserve averaging more than 12 minutes per game. He's valuable because of his experience. And because he can handle the ball a little. And because he can make a shot -- he seems to always make a shot -- when Kentucky needs somebody to make a shot. I'm not sure if he'll be a first-round pick like UK's five starters. But he could be. And that's scary.
One guy soaring: Michael Kidd Gilchrist's offense isn't consistently there because he's not a great offensive player in the traditional sense. But his motor is always running full speed, which allows him to at times score in bunches -- proof being the 24 points and 10 rebounds he hung on Indiana in the Sweet 16, and the 19 points and five rebounds he put on Baylor in the Elite Eight while earning the South Regional's Most Outstanding Player honor.
|There they are, the most dominant team in college basketball this season. (US Presswire)|
One guy slumping: The scary thing for Louisville -- and Kansas and Ohio State -- is that there really isn't a single Wildcat "slumping" right now. Marquis Teague and Darius Miller are the only true rotation players who didn't score in double-figures against Baylor, but they had 14 and 19 in the previous win over Indiana. Truth be told, these Wildcats are dialed in pretty good right now. They head to New Orleans playing, from top to bottom, as well as they've played all season.
Notable stat: Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist are expected to go No. 1 and No. 2 in June's NBA Draft but are ranked fourth and fifth in shots attempted on the UK roster. In other words, John Calipari has convinced his top two prospects that they don't have to shoot to achieve everything they want to achieve, and that's an awfully difficult thing for a college coach to do. I mean, Mississippi State's Renardo Sidney was quoted in the Clarion-Ledger Tuesday complaining about his lack of touches. Get my point?
Last time in Final Four: 2011
Last time won a national championship: 1998
All-time starting five: G: Ralph Beard; G: Tony Delk; F: Kenny Walker; F: Jamal Mashburn; F: Dan Issel
Final thought: If Kentucky plays well Kentucky won't lose. That's the simplest way to put it. They're so much more talented -- and so much better -- than everybody else in New Orleans that it's difficult to imagine them losing, especially when you consider that they've won the first four games of this NCAA tournament by double-digits. So all those people who have always said that John Calipari "can't win the big one" had better get it out of their system over the next six days, because by this time next Tuesday that little debate will almost certainly be put to rest.