Originally posted on Fox Sports South  |  Last updated 3/24/12
Swing man Darius Miller is the resident sage on the Kentucky roster, the lone senior that sees a lot of floor action. He played with the John Wall-DeMarcus Cousins squad bounced "early" in the 2010 Elite 8, played with last year's squad that featured newcomers Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones that lost to eventual champions UCONN in the Final Four and he's with this current Kentucky juggernaut. Three straight years of expectations, scrutiny and pressure. "If you aren't playing for a championship," he said, "then what are you playing for?" That's not a sentiment you hear on every campus. That's a Kentucky thing, because, under John Calipari's stewardship, the Wildcats have been stacked like IHOP a banner is always the goal. But this squad is different. With as many as six possible first round picks in upcoming NBA drafts Anthony Davis, in particular, considered to be the best player in the country Calipari has admitted that his previous squads "aren't quite as talented as this team." Because Kentucky sports a collection of talent as impressive as we've seen since, say, the Fab Five, there's a general and casual assumption of success not from Kentucky, but from everyone else. Coach Cal, for one, seems a little irritated by it. "You know, it seems like there's only one team that is not allowed to lose in this tournament, and that's us," he said. Later he followed that observation with this: "If we don't win by 25, the people of Kentucky are: What is going on?'" Those quotes were after Friday's 102-90 win over Indiana. It was still on Calipari's mind Saturday heading into Sunday's South Regional Final against Baylor. "There's only one team in this tournament that cannot lose, and if they lose, it's disaster, and that's us," he reiterated. "I'm not putting that on these kids. They're all young." That's the problem. The burden of expectations can wear on Kentucky's young, mostly teenage psyches. So it's the coaches the adults jobs to, as Calipari said, keep the squad loose. How do you do that with a berth to the Final Four at stake and the nationwide expectation of an eventual championship? Well, for one, Calipari doesn't show his squad much tape of opponents. He doesn't like them watching other team's play basketball. Thursday, instead of watching the other tournament games, they went to see "21 Jump Street" ("I should say it was awful if you're 53. If you're 20, 19, 21, it was a fun movie. There were some of the stupidest things in this movie I've ever seen. But people were laughing. I was the only one not laughing," said Calipari). For Calipari, keeping his squad loose means not worrying about what's at stake or worrying about what team is trying to stop you from getting that banner. "I don't overload them with stuff from the other team. There's no scouting report on the other team. There's a four minute film session on the other team, no more," reveals Calipari. "They'll watch them the day of the game. That's it. I want them worried about us. Let's just have fun playing basketball." It's a privileged conceit only afforded to a team this talented. "We're a good basketball team," said Calipari. "Let's just play basketball. I don't care what else is going on in the tournament. I'm not watching any of the other games. Why do I care? I'm just worried about my team." While Kentucky tries to stay loose and ignore the suffocating expectations, Baylor actually needs to recognize the moment and play with some urgency. The game they played that gave them a narrow victory over Xavier will not get a win against Kentucky. Baylor coach Scott Drew acknowledged this, so did Quincy Acy. For Baylor, recognizing what can be accomplished by knocking off Kentucky might be exactly what they want to keep them up at night. There are name-making matchups across the board, with Baylor being one of two teams (North Carolina the other) that can, at least, approach Kentucky's talent level. What if Acy outplays Terrence Jones? What if Pierre Jackson drops another double-double on prospective first round pick Marques Teague? What would out-hooping Michael Kidd-Gilchrist do for Quincy Miller's rep? And then of course you have the marquee matchup Davis versus Perry Jones III. Except, Jones III would like us to believe he's not thinking about that individual battle with any more anticipation than Friday's matchup against Kenny Frease. "No, I'm looking forward to playing team basketball," said a stoic Jones III. "I don't want to feed into that because we haven't fed into that all year, and we've been successful. Last thing I want to do is feed into that, trying to go one on one the whole game and not play team basketball, because our team will lose." And he's right. Drew, for one, applauded his answer. But the best players have historically been the most competitive players. Baylor should hope that Jones III's answer was mere lip service and that, quietly, he can't wait to show up Mr. Player of the Year. If that is the case, it won't be anything new for Kentucky. They've spent a full season being everybody's "national championship game" and took every punch. This gets lost amid the public's (again) assumption that Kentucky should never lose. But, you wonder if the Wildcats, in an effort to ignore the expectations still realize that they're on the precipice of doing and being something great, something lasting. The Wall-Cousins squad was talent rich, but nobody will remember that team in five years. In fact, they might already be forgotten. This current Kentucky teams coronation what will legitimize and commemorate this roster as one of the greatest ever only comes with a championship. Calipari knows it, the players know it. The question is can they handle it.
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