Today, we try to climb to the top of the South Region. If we succeed, rarer air awaits.
I can feel you out there. Millions of you in the Big Blue Nation, waiting. Waiting for that moment that we all hope will come, but are painfully aware that could remain again out of reach. It's the anticipation that is waiting to explode. We feel it.
You all know this feeling, and it's best expressed in this paraphrased lyric by Robert Palmer:
Your lights are on, but you're not home
Your mind is not your own
Your heart sweats, your body shakes
Another win is what it takes.
We all feel it, and this year, it is intense. In our minds eye, we can see the Blue and White confetti falling, the players on the floor with their ball caps askew and too-big T-shirts covering their uniforms, hoisting a wooden trophy with gold inlay. We hear the saccharine-laced "One Shining Moment" in the background, and for once, we don't mind singing along. We know it's cloyingly, instant-cavity sweet, but we can't wait to embrace it.
The passion for this dream, this trophy, this championship is a gnawing hunger, a yearning not unlike the effect of the One Ring on its bearers, and the desire to possess it is strong to the point of madness.
We feel it. But we cannot touch it, not yet. It is a dream who's fulfillment rests on the slender shoulders of a 6'10" freshman phenomenon, as well as the broader backs of a 6'7" freshman with an unquenchable fire in the belly, a 6'3" freshman light-years removed from his earlier frustrations, a 6'9" freshman shooting sensation, a 6'9" sophomore of power and skill, a 6'4" sophomore dead-eye shooter, and a 6'8" clear-eyed senior playing for his beloved home state school. Instead of the Nine, for Kentucky, it is the Seven.
Between them, they carry the weight of a Nation, the breathless expectations of a fan base that can't wait to collectively reach out and touch that ring one more time, to hold the stars in their arms again, to feel the One Great Feeling. It is close now, very close. But our path to victory is not clear. In fact, it is opposed.
It is said that the man who tries to touch the stars oft stumbles at a simple straw, and the same can be applied to basketball teams. Kentucky fans are all too familiar with this -- it happened as recently as the last two years, first in 2010 when a 1-3-1 zone derailed our hopes, then again last year when a cellophane lid appeared on the basket for the Wildcats in the national semifinal game against the Connecticut Huskies. Stumbling on a straw has been what we do, and has partially defined the teams of the last two years despite their prodigious success.
Standing in our path today are the Baylor Bears, an athletic marvel of a team who for the first 17 games of this season had a perfect, unblemished record, a team that was at one time headed straight to the top of the national rankings. Then, like all teams these days who feel the pressure of perfection, they stumbled on that straw.
But the stumble didn't derail their season, and they prevailed to get to this point -- the South Regional Final, the Elite Eight round of the tournament. Bayor, too, can feel the power of the great ring, so near. Their passion may not be as widespread, but it is no less intense.
So this is where we sit, ladies and gentlemen of the Big Blue Nation. The road is laid before us, and it our path is a mighty foe. Today at circa 2:00 PM, these teams will meet in combat, to the death of a season. One team will go back home and their championship hopes will perish in flames. The other will continue to meet the Louisville Cardinals in the Crescent City.
Can you feel it? I know you can. We all can. It is coming ...