In what seems a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I said that I expected an NCAA Tournament championship out of this Kentucky team. I expected it. That's where my expectations began; not with a Final Four, or a Sweet Sixteen. My expectations were the big enchilada, the top of the legendary mountain. Nothing less than summiting Mount Everest would do.
I look back at that now, even though it could still actually happen, and wonder why I set myself up for such disappointment. It all seems so stupid now, so petty. I suppose 2011-12 had me thinking that John Calipari would just bring in the greatest recruiting class ever, flip his magic switch, and we'd have a 38-2 season just like 2012. No problem.
One of the things about being a Kentucky fan is that success, and then a sudden failure like we saw in 2013, can have a weird effect on your psyche. Falling from Asgard all the way to Earth is a long way — just ask Thor. It's a long way, and when you land, it definitely leaves a mark on your Big Blue soul. I blame that psychic bruise for my momentary insanity. I've long since recovered.
When Kentucky fell in the last seconds at Arkansas this January, something happened. Just like when Calipari talks about his team having to change, I began to realize I had to change. These lofty expectations weren't working out, and I was unable to see past them, or rather my disappointment that things weren't going my way. So I changed. I recalibrated my expectations. I began to see the team as it was, not how I wanted it to be. Figuring out how to enjoy a choppy ride rather than the smooth wave of accolades that we all rode back in 2012 was hard. But it was worth it.
In this new reality, it was one game at a time, and an understanding with myself that the seed in the NCAA Tournament was not important. That was very hard to internalize, that last. I had come to believe, like many who closely observe basketball, that a #1 seed was crucial to an NCAA Tournament victory. Lots of teams made runs from high seeds, but hardly anyone, least of all a blueblood like Kentucky, had any business trying to win the tournament from lower than a four seed. So I disabused myself of the notion of seed importance, and took the position that the seed didn't matter — this team was talented enough to win from anywhere.
That sort of brings us to the present, because right now, Kentucky hasn't won from the #8 seed — not the NCAA Tournament anyway, not yet. What they have done is proven that, when you get to the tournament with as much talent as Kentucky has, seeding really is irrelevant. Yes, the Wildcats could have lost all those games they won over the last two weeks. But they didn't. Not only that, they didn't have to make last-second shots to live or die in any of them — their opponents had to attempt that, and all were unsuccessful.
In my recalibrated world, the Wildcats exceeded my expectations when they beat the Wichita State Shockers. I've learned this year a great lesson in expectations, one that detracted from my enjoyment of the game, and it was mostly due to a fairly rational, and yet irrational, conclusion that with more, Calipari would be able to do it easier. This year, the Wildcats had so much more depth than in 2012, so much more overall talent. How could it all go wrong?
Well it did go wrong. Lots of times. Nobody was too alarmed about the loss to the Michigan St. Spartans in the third game — even in my earlier thinking, that was always going to be difficult for a young team. The Baylor loss was much more disconcerting, but nothing to be too worried about. Then came North Carolina, and I began to worry about that one seed. Defeating Louisville helped, but then the losses piled up in the SEC until the team underwent a virtual collapse, dropping four of its final seven games.
The Wildcats have now come full circle. Somewhere between the "tweak" and Wildcat Coal Lodge, they found the missing ingredient. It was always something small and ordinary, like the plastic thing that holds a six-pack together. You never think about that plastic thing until you don't have it and you have to cradle six cans in your arms. Yes, you can get to your destination that way, but its much harder, and it takes longer.
Now that the whatever-it-is has been found, and it's not terribly important to me what it was, we have seen the Wildcats function as a team rather than a collection. It has made all the difference. Meanwhile, my recalibrated expectations have allowed my to enjoy the last half of the season far more than the first, and kept my outlook positive rather than desultory.
Bringing together freshmen into a competitive team for the NCAA Tournament title is incredibly difficult. Many pixels have been darkened recently praising Calipari for getting this done, and wondering somewhat ruefully how so many could have been so wrong about what it takes to make a team out of a collection of talent barely old enough to vote. I was taking Coach Cal for granted, I think, a mistake I don't plan to repeat. You may miss some of the hyperbole, but for the sake of my sanity, that kind of thinking had to be "tweaked," if you will.
So here we are, in the Final Four. Back were we belong. It's like destiny or something, except it was anything but. The gestation of this team has been long and filled with complications; the birth, painful and difficult. The teen years were filled with rebellion and strife, and young adulthood with grief and loss of confidence.
Suddenly, this team is full grown, and proving that it is ready to live up to its singular promise. Even if it does not, this one has been a life worth living, and living it with them has been just like living the real thing, only its entire lifetime from birth to demise is six months.
In a maximum of one week, or two more games, this Kentucky Wildcats team will pass from life into legend, waiting to be reborn in November; the circle of life.