UK trying to minimize the pressure of being title favorite

To win the next six games in a row, UK can’t play tight, can’t play worried, can’t play burdened.

Reasons for why UK might play that way certainly exist. The Cats are the overall No. 1 seed and the popular pick to win the national title.

John Calipari, though, is trying to alleviate any external pressure on the Cats. The team held a meeting on Tuesday designed to do just that for the players, and Calipari’s theme throughout Wednesday’s press conference was about playing relaxed.

“I’m feeling like I always feel (before the tournament),” Calipari said. “Let’s go do this. Let’s go one game at a time, one possession at a time.”

The heavy weight of being had, apparently, existed down the stretch run of the regular season. Anthony Davis admitted the team felt it as the wins piled up. After the SEC Tournament, Calipari said the Cats needed to have more fun.

So, can the Cats reclaim that bounce in their step? The loss could help with that. So could a few days off. Entering the NCAA Tournament can feel like a reset button. And Calipari is still developing that “us against the world” mentality by calling a not-so-insane region “stacked,” a move that could bring the team closer and make the biggest overdogs in the tournament feel like something resembling an underdog. In Wednesday’s practice, the team certainly looked looser when shooting around with each other. Now, that just has to translate to games.

“I’m telling them, forget about all the trappings and all the other stuff,” Calipari said. “Just play basketball.”

Calipari also tried to downplay the meaning of a loss. He’s been on that side of the score too much — every year, actually — and knows the inherent absurdity in the NCAA Tournament. Any team can lose when it’s left up to a single game. That “one-and-doneness,” as Calipari called it, is why the tournament is so popular. It’s also why UK could very well lose, and Calipari seemed to already be safeguarding against that possibility.

“Let’s stay in the moment,” Calipari said. “Let’s have a ball playing. And if that’s not good enough, that’s not good enough.”

Unfortunately, that won’t entirely work this year. Calipari may feel the same as he does every other year, but the truth is, this year is decidedly not like every other year.

A loss in this NCAA Tournament may not be severe enough to be classified as a “failure,” but it certainly would be a tremendous heartbreak. Ever since this recruiting class was assembled and Terrence Jones announced he was coming back, it’s been a march toward banner No. 8. Yes, Calipari is absolutely correct that this team can very well lose, and it wouldn’t be indicative of how great this team is or is not. Plenty of other “great” teams have lost in the NCAA Tournament — UNLV in the early 1990s, for example — but the bar is simply too high for this UK team to play the “do our best” card.

The pressure is there. Whether UK feels it, however, could make all the difference.

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