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Kentucky thrives on fear of failure

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Perhaps fear is the key to this Kentucky team.

CBS Sports Classic Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

The Kentucky Wildcats started off the season on the wrong foot. They went into the season with high aspirations, just like the rest of us, and it all came crashing down in game one.

Yes, they rebounded by beating some cupcakes, but everyone was still feeling the embarrassment from the loss against Duke.

And just as the Cats seemingly got rolling again, they were brought back down to earth when they fell to Seton Hall. It wasn’t a bad loss, but it was a game everyone expected to win.

Kentucky bounced back again and destroyed Utah, but that wasn’t saying much. Everyone was looking ahead to the daunting two-game stretch before SEC play started.

I can admit I wasn’t confident UK would win both, maybe not even one, of the games against North Carolina and Louisville.

North Carolina was a top-10 team in the country, and Louisville had already knocked off a top-10 Michigan State team.

Based on the direction this team was going, it was beginning to look like the Cats might collapse again. But John Calipari explained what changed for the team in that two-game span.

“We’ve got great kids. We really do. Great kids who are talented and who just, we’ve started becoming a team, I think out of fear. We had two games that we’re like, oh my gosh, we can’t win either one of these, and out of fear, I think they went like this, and then we won two, and then all of a sudden we’re like, alright. Now I’ve got to get back to -- well, that’s my job and if they started separating and I didn’t see it, that’s on me.”

So, the team was just as nervous as much of the fanbase was going into those two games. I knew Kentucky had enough talent to be special, but when would they put it all together?

According to Calipari, they went into those games afraid. For the first time all season, they came down from their pedestal and realized maybe they aren’t as good as they thought they were.

And that’s okay. They knew they had the potential to be. And apparently, the fear of losing brought that out of them.

So, what changed over these last two games? Kentucky went from looking like a serious National Title contender to a dud in a matter of a week.

Sure, it’s never easy to go on the road, especially in the SEC, and win, but Alabama wasn’t better than Kentucky. And Texas A&M isn’t in the same stratosphere as the Cats this season.

Well, what happened is they won those two games they were afraid they would lose. And they saw two inferior teams ahead on the schedule and they reverted.

Calipari also said they have to empower themselves if they want to reach their potential. They have to come out and fight every second of the game, or else these games will continue to happen.

“They are not empowered yet, let’s just say that. At some point, if this team is going to be what I believe they can be, they can be one of those teams, they have to be empowered. That means that I shouldn’t even talk about effort and intensity and fight. Shouldn’t even come out of my mouth, not once.”

“And there should be times they huddle and talk, instead of me telling the guy, ‘Why would you break off that play?’ They grab him and say, ‘Why did you do that?’”

One player who stepped up and became empowered last night: EJ Montgomery.

“Today, I like the fact that EJ got after one of the guys and said, ‘Pass the ball man. Why you being selfish?’

“If they have to have it all from me, I don’t want to do it. I don’t have fun doing that. I have fun cheering.”

Coach Cal is confident they can get this thing right. And so am I. They have so much potential, and they’ve barely scratched the surface.

Maybe all they need is a little bit of fear, which they should have plenty of in the coming weeks when they face Auburn, Kansas and Tennessee. If Kentucky feared losing to Louisville and North Carolina, those three teams — especially Tennessee — should be terrifying.

Even games at a KenPom top-25 Florida team and at home vs. a top-25 ranked Mississippi State team should put some fear in these young Cats.

And of course, fear will be aplenty come NCAA Tournament time, when any loss ends your season, and for some, their college career.