UK expected to be the best, year after year



Cutting through the flashing lights and the pulsating music of Big Blue Madness was John Calipari’s message, delivered against a “Kentucky Effect” backdrop from a lectern on a sprawling stage.

UK is at the frontier of college basketball.

Two years ago, Calipari said, UK basketball was reborn. Now, he said, UK is redefining college basketball.

“We don’t move the needle,” Calipari said. “We are the needle.”

That needle consists of a players-first mentality in a program-centric state. UK recruits the best players and is the facilitator of their dreams.

This approach is a means to an end. To build a program to the level Calipari currently has built, UK would have been impossible without the players he’s brought. Building the program brings in more top players. It’s a mutually beneficial cycle. Push and promote the players, and they will give UK what it wants.

“They will in turn help us to create memories,” Calipari said. “Help win banners that we all yearn for.”

The banner has not been won yet. Not the one that matters most, at least. Last year’s Final Four banner was unfurled at this year’s Madness. UK wants a better one unfurled at next year’s Madness.

“I think Kentucky fans think we’re supposed to win every single year no matter what,” Kentucky native and senior guard Darius Miller said at Media Day. “But we have to live up to it. We made the choice to come here. We know what to expect coming into this season.”

Expecting it is one thing. Dealing with it is another. Managing the exceedingly high predictions of this team has been difficult. It’s impossible (for fans) to ignore the potential of a championship for this team, but it’s impractical to overburden the team this early. Reconciling the two is important. The goal has to be acknowledged, but (by players) ignored simultaneously.

That may explain why Calipari vacillates when he talks about how UK will deal with it. One minute he’s saying he wants his players to “think like kings,” to “embrace the belief that we have no limits,” that he doesn’t want to make his players “feel bad about wanting to be the best.” The next he’s saying he “doesn’t get bogged down in it,” that he just wants to have “peace of mind” by doing the best he can.

His players reflect that. Doron Lamb said “not winning it all” would qualify the season as a disappointment. Terrence Jones said that winning a championship is what everyone wants, but “it hasn’t been discussed.”

The internal effects are the most important. Whatever Calipari instills in this team, however he chooses to handle it, impacts more than whatever external forces, from fans and the media, are applied.

“It’s just what we deal with,” Calipari said, and he’s right. Marquis Teague said fans tell him, over and over, to get banner No. 8.

“It’s an everyday thing. It never stops,” Teague said. And even if UK does win banner No. 8, the press for banner No. 9 won’t ever stop, either.

That’s how it goes at UK.