LEXINGTON – Much is being made this week of the pressure the top-seeded, 36-2 Kentucky Wildcats will feel Saturday night when they hook up with the rival Louisville Cardinals (30-9) in the Final Four in New Orleans.
Side note: Tip for the game is listed as 6:09. Question: Who comes up with that time? What’s going on throughout the day that would have prevented the tip time from being, say, 6? And why have this game first? Who’s playing in the other semifinal? Butler? Let’s see, it’s Ohio State (spearheaded by media negativism) against, um, um ... sigh, oh yeah, Kansas ... phew, boy, old age is a beast, I tell ya.
But, back to pressure. I’m not terribly concerned about how Kentucky will handle the pressure. I understand that Louisville will present pressure, both literally and figuratively, but this Kentucky team has handled pressure very well this season.
In fact, it seems like 90 percent of the time the Wildcats have played their best under pressure. And, in this case, I’m talking about pressure of the emotional variety, not physical. The Cardinals did physically pressure the Wildcats pretty successfully at Rupp Arena on Dec. 31, before losing 69-62. THAT is a concern for UK.
But I don’t believe the idea of playing their rival on a big stage like this will be the problem emotionally that some Kentucky fans fear it will.
I do believe that last year’s Final Four experience will help Kentucky. Senior Darius Miller and sophomores Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb should benefit greatly from that.
And I don’t see fear being any part of the makeup for freshmen like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Anthony Davis
I do wonder how Louisville will react to the moment. You would think the Cardinals would milk the underdog card for all they can, still they have their own worries, so to speak, dealing with Kentucky’s talent and their own burning desire to win for Pitino and their own personal pride.
No one is going to be relaxed, in other words, come 6:09 Saturday, on either side. But it is fascinating to see how both teams will respond to the moment.
If Louisville goes up, say, 58-51 with 10 minutes to go, will the Wildcats step up and meet the challenge?
Kentucky coach John Calipari claims he isn’t feeling any pressure to get his first national championship, but he understands that fans are feeling a lot of pressure about winning the school’s eighth title.
“My friends and family are feeling it (pressure for a title) way more than I do,” Calipari said this week. “Gene Keady and John Chaney have never won a national title. I can name 50 coaches that have been in this situation and haven’t won it.
“I’m not looking at this like validation,” Calipari added. “I’m just not. My wife can tell you. I’m concerned about our team playing great, and those guys getting all those accolades and that stuff happening. My friends say, ‘I’m just hoping so they will stop’ ... I’m just coaching my team. I want it for the fans, for these players, for this program.
“I’ve never been in a place that they are so passionate, but yet they have a soft heart. They want this thing to go well, and they worry. They can’t sleep at night.
“I’m sleeping like a baby.”
Both the Cardinals and the Wildcats have improved dramatically since their New Year’s Eve meeting. The only player who played up to or exceeded his potential for the Cardinals in that affair was sophomore guard Russ Smith, whose passion for the game reminds me a lot of Kidd-Gilchrist, though those two are very different players.
Smith poured in 30 points against Kentucky the first time around.
“Whoever guarded him (Russ Smith) then, probably won’t be guarding him this time,” Calipari says.
Louisville sophomore Gorgui Dieng, a 6-foot-11 center, is light years better now. Dieng has blossomed into a shot blocker who can rival Kentucky’s Davis.
Junior guard Peyton Siva has blossomed into the point guard Pitino and the Louisville fans have been hoping for for a long time.
“I’ve always liked Siva,” Calipari said. “I think he’s really good.”
You can bet that U of L freshman forward Chane Behanan will play a lot better Saturday. Behanan picked up three early fouls in the first game, one a technical, and was a non-factor.
“I love him,” Calipari says of Behanan. “I love his skill set for a guy his size (6-6, 250 pounds). I love Siva. And Dieng has played better. They’ve got the Smith’s (Russ and Chris). They’ve got a terrific team, which is why they are still playing.”
My pick in this game looks like this: If Anthony Davis is 100 percent healthy, I believe Kentucky will win along the lines of 78-70. There have been no comments out of the Kentucky camp this week about Davis’ health. I’m not taking that to mean the UK big man is fine.
If Davis feels any ill effects from banging knees/landing awkwardly on a knee (you can believe either story), then I could see a Louisville upset, 77-73.
I hope it’s a clean game, I hope there are no incidents like that at the Georgetown dialysis clinic this week, and I hope the few knuckleheads in the fan base of both teams don’t give us all a bad name when their side loses this game.
And it would be nice if the winning team has enough energy left to beat, um, um, well, whoever they might play in Monday’s national championship game.
Let’s have either Kentucky or Louisville have the one shining moment.