If Kentucky wins the NCAA Tournament, the moment the Cats showed their championship mettle came at Georgia in the final week of the regular season. UK trailed by nine points (its largest second-half deficit of the season) with less than nine minutes left, by six with less than five minutes left.
"Georgia was doing everything right," Vanderbilt Coach Kevin Stallings said. "Mark (Fox) had his team completely prepared to win the game. And John's guys wouldn't have it. Impressive."
Kentucky's resolve moved Stallings to send a congratulatory text message to UK Coach John Calipari.
"I told him that's one of the best toughness wins I've ever seen," Stallings said.
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That Kentucky was undefeated and had heard talk all season about being undefeated made the 72-64 victory at Georgia all the more striking.
"If Kentucky had three losses and won that game, that's not nearly as impressive as having zero losses," Stallings said. "There's more pressure on them."
Being impervious to pressure should be a valuable attribute in the NCAA Tournament. For the first time, Kentucky will have no fallback position in this championship-or-bust season. No more can Calipari dismiss getting "dinged," as he puts it, and using the experience as the team moves forward. Now, it's now or never.
"That is the only reason these (other) teams may potentially — and it may be slim — have a shot at beating Kentucky," said Reggie Miller, a college basketball analyst for Turner Sports. "... I want to see if someone can get Kentucky down in the second half (and see) how they respond."
Kentucky (34-0) has been behind after halftime in only seven games. The Cats haven't trailed at all in 13 games, and not been behind by more than three points (one possession) in another 10 games.
In the 1991 Final Four, Duke faced a similarly dominant UNLV.
"Our game plan was let's try to keep it close," former Duke star Grant Hill said. "Let's hit them in the mouth early. Let's manage the game. When we get in the last five or six minutes, they're going to be uncomfortable."
That UNLV team had won by less than 10 points only twice: 112-104 at Arkansas in the regular season and 62-54 against Georgetown in the NCAA Tournament. Then Duke beat the Runnin' Rebels 79-77.
"Those gut-check times," Hill said. "Those moments when the kids say, 'We've got to right the ship.' 'We've got to turn the screws.' 'We've got to handle whatever adversity has been thrown at us.' "
Kentucky has dealt successfully with such moments. The Cats won an overtime game against Ole Miss, a double-overtime game at Texas A&M, when leading by two points with barely a minute left at Florida, when trailing by six points with less than seven minutes left at LSU and then at Georgia.
When asked at the Southeastern Conference Tournament about the NCAA Tournament's win-or-go-home dynamic, Tyler Ulis said, "I don't think we're bothered by that at all. ... We're very confident. Me personally, I'm extremely confident."
Willie Cauley-Stein acknowledged the difference that comes with playing in the NCAA Tournament, which amounts to a series of Game 7 showdowns.
"That's just a little bit of pressure, which is good, though," he said. "It's a good pressure to have because it keeps you motivated, and it's going to keep you hungry."
ESPN analyst Jay Bilas called the Kentucky-Georgia game, keeping an eye on how UK reacted to the possibility of losing. He recalled Georgia's Nemanja Djurisic scoring in the final seconds of the first half to tie the game at 32 at halftime.
"There was some anticipation and tension in the building," Bilas said. "... Kentucky looked like they were playing a game in the park. They had smiles on their faces. There was not a hint of arrogance. They were not bothered at all. They looked like they were going to play to win without a concern. They were not afraid of losing."
Stallings noticed the same thing. The Cats did not seem distracted by the possibility of losing.
"Heck no, you couldn't tell because they didn't allow it to affect them," the Vandy coach said. "And John wired them right in that way. It's impressive."
Tennessee Coach Donnie Tyndall stressed the need to take the initiative when the pressure mounts.
"Maybe even in certain situations, you do something that's a little risky or aggressive," he said. "So your team takes on the mentality of, 'Hey, we're going after these guys.'"
In the final weeks of the regular season, Calipari spoke of the UK players taking risks. He noted how there was such a thing as too few turnovers, which reflect an overly cautious approach to playing.
No need for caution in this NCAA Tournament, Calipari said on his radio show Monday.
"(The Cats) should not have anxiety about this tournament. None," he said. " ... I think I have the best team and the best players. Doesn't mean we're going to win. It means we have the best chance to win."
Stallings spoke of Kentucky's victory at Georgia as a leading indicator of what to expect under NCAA Tournament conditions.
"I bet you they don't do anything different," the Vandy coach said. "I bet you they're the same group that believes they're going to win the same way every time.
"And they probably will."