Dip Number Two
For the Kentucky Wildcats, all the 'must-win' clichés applied to Sunday's regular season ending showdown between the 'Cats and the Tennessee Vols. With UK sitting at 9-6 in the league prior to play, a (disappointingly) rare conference road victory would clinch a second place SEC East finish, granting the 'Cats a first round bye in the upcoming SEC tournament in Atlanta. By virtue of a first round bye, a win would also increase UK's chances of running the SEC tourney table, and make much more likely the odds the Wildcats would be successful in their bid to win their second consecutive league championship. Lose (I don't even want to think about it), and UK would be forced to play and win four straight days in Atlanta in order to get as advantageous seed as possible in the NCAA tournament.
Suffice it to say, the oven had been turned to high heat, and awaiting anxiously to see if their 'Cats would shrink from the intensity of that heat was a fan base unpleasantly accustomed to watching their favorite team suffer from mistakes, missed shots, and untimely turnovers in the final minutes of their previous SEC road contests.
Also of great import to the psyche of John Calipari's young Kentucky team was the opportunity to put away a quality road opponent, something the 'Cats have managed to do only once this season (in a sweet 78-63 win against Louisville at the Yum! Center back on New Year's Eve). Unfortunately, the Wildcat road game storyline in 2011 has been a gut-wrencher of monumental proportions for the fans, and more-so, for the 'Cats themselves -- Think about it Wildcat fans; if the supporters of the team ache with each tough loss, imagine how the players and coaching staff must feel. For they are the ones who work, sweat, and sacrifice to win ball games -- So going a long way in bolstering the confidence of this team (and everyone wants a confident team come tourney time) was UK's 64-58 hard fought victory in cavernous Thompson-Boling Arena. Said UK coach John Calipari after the 'Cats win:
"What I told them was we grew up today. For the first time this year, we did not play like we started. At North Carolina we did it, and didn't change it. At Georgia on the road this year, we did it, and didn't change it. Here, we changed it. And how in the world we were only down seven (at halftime)? We should've been down 15 or 18. But in the second half, they fought like crazy. It was an experience -- Tennessee wanted to win, we wanted to win. This is a big step. I told them we grew up today."
But in order for the 'Cats to "grow up today" versus Tennessee, they first had to take baby steps against Vanderbilt on Tuesday night in Rupp Arena. Ya know, it's a process.
Dip Number One
Thankfully, the other monkey on the back of the 'Cats was finally banished to far away regions by virtue of UK's 68-66 victory over a strong Vanderbilt squad on Tuesday night, albeit in Rupp Arena. But a close win is a close win, whether it be in the supportive environment of a team's home court, or on the road, and this UK squad certainly seemed to let out a collective sigh of relief at their ability to finally close out a tight game in winning fashion. UK point guard Brandon Knight had this to say about UK's victory over the 'Dores (note the use of the "c" word):
"I know I got a lot of confidence from our last win since it was such a close win, but it really helped our team overall."
Coach John Calipari elaborated on Knights thoughts, paying kudos to the youngsters for coming through in the clutch, something that has not been the rule of thumb this season:
"The free throws down the stretch by two freshmen. Say it again; I don't know if, well, I know for a fact there's nobody asking their freshmen to do more than we are. It's not even close. Other teams have freshmen who are playing well, but if they don't (play well), they're OK. We're not in that position. I mean, these kids have to perform. And the last six free throws were by our freshmen, and they made five" in leading the 'Cats to their initial close game victory.
How timely and supremely enjoyable it is that the 'Cats were able to smack the ugly out of the two over-stuffed baboons perched precariously on the backs of the boys in blue, in back-to-back games. Win a close game? Check. Win on the road? Check mate!
Perhaps this road win accomplishment (like the tight win Tuesday versus the Commodores) will propel the 'Cats to things unimagined only two, three, four weeks ago. After all, confidence, and having achieved, when before one failed, can be powerful antidotes for a team frantically searching for ways to consistently win. And winning at Tennessee qualifies as just such an antidote. Terrence Jones spoke to that thought, prior to the UT game, as he chimed in with his thoughts on the importance of winning on the road in Knoxville (note the use of the "c" word):
"It's very important. It'd be great to win and (give us) great confidence going into the SEC tournament. We just have to have a whole other mindset to play well on the road because of the trouble we've been having on the road. I think it's about having confidence all the time."
As was proved Sunday afternoon in Big Orange country; simply believing something can happen, many times leads to making something happen. And nothing should make this Wildcat team believe in themselves more than beating the Vols, in front of an orange clad, Rocky Top-obsessed throng.
Wants, Desires, and the Back Seat
The primary objective of any coach at a program with Kentucky-like grandeur and tradition is to get to the Final Four. And even though the current UK team is rife with fresh faces who have either never before contributed mightily to a UK Big Dance win (only Darius Miller has played big in the Big Dance), or even played in one NCAA Tournament game, expectations remain high among the Big Blue faithful. Youth? The team has played 30 games, say Wildcat backers. Inexperienced tourney team? Talent should always win out, proclaim those who bleed blue.
Because of what is perceived to be a win-or-go-home mentality of many Kentucky fans, the wants and desires of a fan base as fanatical as UK's are many times what the rest of the college basketball nation focuses on when discussing Kentucky basketball. Some with a forum even seem to be consumed by Kentucky fans' consumption of all things UK. But now, in March, what the fans want is irrelevant; what the fans want sits uncomfortably in the back seat. Instead, this time of the year is about what the team wants, and how bad they want it. Because if the team gets what they want, believe me 'Cat fans, everyone who falls under the far-reaching umbrella of "UK fan," will be dry and happy.
In order to fulfill the ultimate goal, though, the team has to believe in it, in order to achieve it. For the Wildcats, beginning to believe was built last Tuesday night in the tight win over Vandy, and "achieving it" began on a cool March afternoon in the Valley of (crushed) Orange.
Now, on to Atlanta to conquer the south, and make believers out of the skeptical -- Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!