As soon as the final horn sounded in the University of Louisville's win over Florida on Saturday (I still can't figure out if UofL won that game, or if Florida lost it), clearing the path for a UofL Final Four appearance, the have-to-win quotient for the Kentucky Wildcats basketball squad rose four-fold. After all, how would it look if No. 1 Kentucky, the Kentucky who had been considered the best team in the nation for nearly the entire season, the Kentucky who lost but twice, the Kentucky anointed the overall No. 1 Big Dance seed ... how black and bleak would Wildcat world become if lowly, little brother Louisville made it to the Final Four, and the 'Cats flamed out in the Elite Eight?
Cardinal head-ache facilitator Matt Jones would have had to scamper to the nearest Bell County holler, taking cover as Card fans gained a measure of revenge as they flung crow from the deepest recesses of the Greater Louisville Metro Area.
Worse though, worse than UK losing to Baylor yesterday, would be the 'Cats losing to the Cards this Saturday. Losing to Louisville is simply not even close to being an option. Short of the entire Wildcat starting five coming down with food poisoning the morning of the game, Kentucky cannot lose to the Cardinals.
IT. JUST. CANNOT. HAPPEN.
For this Kentucky team, though, regardless of opponent, the upcoming Final Four weekend is the culmination of one of the most entertaining basketball seasons in recent memory. Making this Wildcat team special was the defense-makes-the-offense style of play, the warrior effort, the personalities on the team, as well as the highlight film manner in which the 'Cats went about finishing on the court, and of course, the ridiculously athletic Spider-man and his 175 blocks. This Kentucky team has been a joy to behold, easy to like, and at times awe provoking.
It's a team oozing from its every pore the type of talent coaches pray will some day be bestowed upon them, so full of superstars, yet there have been no chemistry issues, no, I-want-to-get-mine mindsets. This year has been about the team, about getting better, about winning. Period.
As much as Kentucky fans want with all their collective might for UK to beat Louisville and play for title No. 8, there is no way the fans want it as much as the Wildcat players. It's the players who have fought all year, taking on all comers, and dispatching with great efficiency some of the best ball clubs in the nation. It's the players who have on the line the honor, and the guaranteed lifetime satisfaction of being national champions. It's the players who have worked diligently in practice, and sacrificed personal glory for team accomplishments. Not the fans.
But the fans don't graduate and move to far away places, or leave for the NBA after the season, either. Kentucky fans live among other fans, and some of those "other" fans are of a decidedly different, more red-tinged persuasion. Making matters worse, a significant percentage of those "other" fans are so emotionally scarred by Kentucky's success, that beating the 'Cats equates to near-nirvana, sending them into a hurricane-ish type frenzy which might not be recovered from for quite some while.
Simply put, Louisville winning Saturday is a Kentucky fans' nightmare. As a matter of fact, I just got this in ... Webster's has issued a press release officially redefining "hell." It reads like this: Webster's Dictionary has redefined the word hell to mean the following -- The unmitigated horror any Kentucky Wildcat basketball fan must live through if UK loses to the University of Louisville in the 2012 Final Four.
So there you have it. It's official. Hell awaits if the 'Cats go down to the Cards.
And yes, the 'Cats could very well go down to the Cards, because if we've learned but one thing as sports fans, it's that a coach can do everything right -- recruit the right players, not only the physically gifted, but also those who are team-oriented and coach-able, coach-up the players he recruits, fabricating the best team in the land -- but that's not always enough, especially in a lose-and-go-home format. I can't beat-back the knowledge, creeping up in the back of my mind, that the best, most talented team doesn't always win the championship.
Make no mistake, though, Kentucky has the better team. Louisville, with a lineup of Kyle Kuric, Gorgui Dieng, Peyton Siva, the two Smiths (Russ and Chris), and Chane Behanan, have no players on its team who will be lottery picks (with the possible exception of Behanan if he stays at UofL another year or two), while Kentucky's radioactive roster is bursting at the seams with future NBA talent. Additionally, UK's length and versatility make the Wildcats almost impossible to guard, either in a zone -- which the 'Cats will shoot over, or gash at the gaps on rim runs -- or man-to-man -- which the 'Cats will dribble-drive into oblivion by "out-athleting" the opposition.
Both teams play outstanding team ball, meaning both teams are unselfish, so I see no real advantage for our UofL brethren in team chemistry. So, UK has better athletes, better basketball players, and equal unity as UofL. But still, the Cards do play as tough a defense as the 'Cats have faced this season, and any team so thoroughly committed to playing tight defense can be dangerous.
Also, the John Calipari vs. Rick Pitino angle is, uh, interesting. Although I like the fact that Cal has beat Pitino three-straight years, UK's coach has never beat a Pitino team in a one-and-done deal, whether it be a conference or NCAA tournament game (but Cal never had a team approaching how good this UK team is, either). Plus, even the most die-hard, painted-face Wildcat fan has to admit what the Cards have done over the last three weeks is impressive; first winning the Big East tournament, then advancing through Michigan State and Florida into the Final Four. I left UofL for dead two months ago, but the re-emergence of Siva at the point has elevated the Cardinals into the elite. Like it or not.
And that's why I won't sleep much this week. Even though I feel, without any real doubt, that this UK juggernaut is the absolute best team in the country, that truth just isn't enough for me to feel comfortable. Add the Cardinal element to an already nerve-wracking set of Final Four circumstances, and memories of recent vintage Big Dance letdowns come flooding back into my consciousness. Reminding me no one, or no thing is absolute when it comes to athletic competition (well, with the exception that a Dookie will at some point flop ... and sometimes "flop" in more ways than one).
This team though, win or lose on Saturday, has given Wildcat fans more enjoyable moments than most. From the electrifying win over North Carolina in early December (I still remember thinking "where did he come from" about Anthony Davis as he blocked John Henson's shot), to the toughness the team displayed in beating Louisville on New Year's Eve, to the ESPN top 10 dunks and breakaways the 'Cats used to dispatch without a scratch all 16 SEC regular season opponents, to the Wildcats' team defining defense utilized as fighter fuel, and finally the 24 consecutive hard court conquests.
All done without a whisper of discontent within the confines of the most closely scrutinized basketball program in the world. No fights, no tantrums. Only teammates cheering on teammates in their unified quest for banner No. 8.
Before the first tip-off against Marist in November, many Kentucky fans prognosticated a great 2012 season for the 'Cats, but this team went beyond great a couple of months ago. They are now firmly perched to achieve notoriety only the iconic deserve.
But before that can happen, the 'Cats have to beat Louisville.
Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats, crush the Cards!