CLEVELAND — By now, Kentucky’s biggest and most unlikely victory hasn’t come against any team. This group’s beaten a bigger opponent, a nebulous and pesky one that normally intrudes every day at inconvenient times and before, during and after each game. It affects college kids more often than not, especially come March.
Kentucky’s pressed out the pressure. The Wildcats have smothered the concept of external stress just like they asphyxiated West Virginia on Thursday night, just like they’ve done to 75 percent of other opponents on their schedule. Fan expectations, media conjecture? It’s all boilerplate background noise for UK.
John Calipari long ago mastered taming the most enthusiastic and maniacal fan base in the sport. It’s something he still doesn’t receive nearly enough credit for. He is the maestro of this, perhaps better than any college coach ever at manipulating the media while masterfully conducting his team.
“Well, if I have to deal with their expectations, I would be under the desk in a fetal position,” he said on Friday. “So I don’t worry. The expectations we have for ourselves on this team is within us. The only thing that I can be concerned with is us being at our best and us having each individual player being coached as though they’re a starter being the best version of themselves, understanding what that looks like. We do a lot of video of them at their best. Here’s what you look like at your best. I want them to visually see it over and over and over. If that’s not good enough, I promise you I’ll be fine. I told the players already, you do your best, you’re — if that’s not good enough, I’ll deal with the response, I’ll deal with it. Because these kids right now, what they’ve done and how they’ve done it, it’s been special.”
It has been special, of course, but that’s on-court talk. Off of it? This is fairly astonishing. Media has never been more all-consuming and ever-present than in 2015. Yet because the Wildcats have been so great over the course of five months, they’ve truly been able to supress any notion of pressure. (Which can be an overwrought concept to begin with, but it unquestionably can creep into the psyche of many a player and/or team.)
This group is disarmingly relaxed, cool, going through the motions. They resemble an NBA team in so many ways, none more than their ability to deal with the media pack and take any and all questions — many of them for the 87th time, in one variation or another — and just accept the undertaking for what it is: part of the job.
Wildcat players have grown into this comfortability because they’ve essentially been born into it. When you sign on at Kentucky you’re stepping onto the biggest stage in college basketball, one covered overhead by a thousand microscopes. On Wednesday Willie Cauley-Stein equated his freshman year at UK to Army deployment.
The team is covered year-round on a national level, but in Lexington the press deputation resembles a throng of dogged newsies that could rival the grizzled group on the New York Yankees’ beat. No college basketball program commands a more intense local beat scene, and because of this, UK’s players have navigated this NCAA Tournament run deftly on the floor, at the podium and in the locker room.
“We’re not perfect; we’re undefeated,” Calipari said on Friday. “I mean, we should have lost five or six games. I mean, easily could have lost those games. And we were lucky enough to win, stay undefeated.”
This is preposterous from Cal. But it’s how he keeps his team motivated and in check. He has to, I suppose, though I’m telling you this UK group is either the best collective poker-faced team ever, or it really has way too much humility to for a crew that’s three wins away from prominently entering the debate as being the greatest college basketball team ever.
“But here’s the great thing, our team’s not worried about that,” Calipari added.
It took an overblown quote from a West Virginia freshmen to juice up Kentucky, and even then Calipari immediately downplayed Daxter Miles Jr.’s words. UK was going to punt WVU from the bracket regardless. Did UK’s players crow in the immediate aftermath of the largest margin of victory ever in the Sweet 16? Of course. But only a little — and then the mental reset kicked in.
With the way UK has beaten opponents by more than 21 points per game this season, an odd sense of calm — call it certainty? — has settled over the group. Calipari’s never had a team this collectively good/deep, and maybe that’s because he’s also never had a team this undeniably likeable. Media-friendly. Tolerable to all questions and fully understanding of the process.
Admittedly, not losing once goes a long way to quality of life.
Over the past three days in Cleveland, and in Louisville the week prior, every UK player, even the walk-ons, has been approached for myriad interviews. That’s not the case with other teams. The scrubs scroll through their phones in their lockers and make small chatter with teammates while a select few players command the huddles and camera lights around their lockers.
If a Wildcats loss is coming in the next three games, no one’s able to predict its course of events. What’s for certain: It won’t be over a lack of focus, too much arrogance or anything resembling pressure impeding on this program. Kentucky’s strength grows by the day because this is an outright modest expectation march to a national title, not a perfect season.
Notre Dame coach Mike Brey enters Saturday’s game with some first-person perspective on the mammoth task at hand. He was an assistant for Mike Krzyzewski in 1991, when Duke knocked off undefeated 79-77 UNLV in the national semifinals. For a few reasons, that UNLV team bears resemblance to what Kentucky’s built this year.
“My memory of that game is Duke, we got off to a great start and then you believed,” Brey said. “And it’s similar to tomorrow. You get off to a good start against Duke in Greensboro, maybe you can get this thing. You get off to a good start against North Carolina — you get off to a good start against Kentucky in here tomorrow night, OK, we’ve got a shot at this thing.”
We can only hope for a close game, for Notre Dame to give repeat performance from its win over Wichita State, in which it shot 70 percent from the field in the second half.
“We are America’s team tomorrow,” Brey said. “There’s no question about it. Got some great texts. And we love it, we certainly will take all that support. We’ve got a monumental challenge on our hands, but we play in the best conference in America. Going through the teams we had to go through in ACC play, I think has us very prepared to play against a great team like Kentucky.”
Brey’s wrong on that one. His team’s story is a terrific one, and it’d be fantastic to see another coach take the Irish to a Final Four. It’d be just the second one in program history (1978).
But Kentucky has fascinated the country. Its run toward 40-0 has helped catalyze record-breaking ratings for the tournament. Everyone wants to watch the Wildcats, win or lose, and that can only keep going if the former happens.
No pressure, fellas.