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Kentucky Basketball: How Do You Spell Relief? F-I-N-A-L F-O-U-R

Admit it, ladies and gentlemen of the Big Blue Nation -- you feel that relief.  Relief like a giant stone, or vicious, head-pounding, back-biting orangutan has suddenly been lifted from your shoulders after almost 13 long years and four failed attempts at getting back across the river Jordan to the land of milk and honey, where even failure has become success.

Get to the Final Four, they say, and your season, your coaching, your entire program is vindicated. It doesn't really matter much if you get beaten once you get there, it only matters that you get there.  Final Four banners are hung in gyms everywhere, and people seemingly ignore the fact that if you don't have a national championship banner to go with it, it is the mark of failure.

Did I just say that?  Yes, I did.  Let's be honest, getting to a Final Four is a big deal for a lot of schools, and it's a big deal right now for Kentucky mainly because of two reasons:  1) we haven't been there in 12 years, and 2) this team was never expected to get that far.  Those two facts make a difference.

But in the almost interminable interregnum between 1998 and 2011, some Kentucky fans have forgotten what it truly means to be a Kentucky fan.  Back in Rupp's day, a visit to the Final Four was a cause for celebration only if you won the two games there.  I recall the 1975 team that got to the final game and lost to John Wooden's UCLA squad in convincing fashion. I wasn't celebrating.  That wasn't what we did when we lost, and I don't mean just to UCLA, I mean the national championship.

That doesn't mean we should consider the season a failure if we lose Saturday, or Sunday.  What it means is that we have, somewhat understandably, forgotten how to act as if we have been there before, because quite frankly, it has just been so danged long measured by Kentucky history since we have.  Since 1942, Kentucky has never been over a decade between visits to the final weekend of the NCAA tournament.  The Wildcats have repeatedly knocked on the door over the last 12 seasons, only to have it slammed in their face in the regional final.  Last year was only the most recent in a long line of such disappointments, and in most cases, UK was the favorite.

This visit to the national semifinals fairly drips with irony.  How ironic is it that this 2011 team, by any measure less talented than 2010's overpowering squad, got where 2010 did not?  How ironic is it that UK, who has never reached the tournament's last weekend with anything less than a 2 seed, should get there as a #4 seed with a weaker team, at least on paper, than last year's #1 seed?

It's hard to believe sometimes that we have been here before, but we have, and the Final Four is really just one more stepping stone to what Kentucky fans really want -- championship #8.  Let's not lose sight of that.  The Final Four is an entirely media-created achievement, and as recently as 1978 when CBS NBC started capitalizing the term, nobody considered it of great value.  I assure you the phrase "We got to the Final Four!!" was never used as an accolade in 1975.  And while it is true that the Wildcats have overachieved getting here, they are here now.  Failure to close the deal should not be considered Kentucky tradition, although it has happened almost as often as not.

So be relieved, Kentucky fans.  But not too relieved.  The Final Four may be a destination for most schools, but for Kentucky, it is only a waypoint.  The most important work is yet before us.