UK Men's Basketball

Every game's now big; nothing will be easy

NEW ORLEANS — From new coach John Calipari's state-of-the-program speech at Big Blue Madness to the 2,000th victory against Drexel to LeBron James to Magic Johnson to No. 1 in the country to DeMarcus Cousins' double-double production line to John Wall's Player of the Year excellence.

All serves as prelude to the NCAA Tournament.

With Kentucky beginning the quest for a national championship on Thursday against East Tennessee State, this dazzling swirl of a season recedes. The players know the next three weeks overshadow all that came before.

"Kentucky fans, they don't hang banners for conference championships or SEC championships," Wall said Wednesday. "They want banners for national championships."

Even though UK enters the NCAA Tournament riding the longest Final Four drought in the proud program's history, this is not a Final Four-or-bust proposition.

The stakes are greater than that.

"It's not just Final Four," Wall said. "Our team's goal is a (national) championship. That's the goal Coach Cal wants."

Several players downplayed the pass/fail quality this tournament holds for Kentucky. The company line seemed to be this: Give our best and live with the consequences.

Only Wall and Patrick Patterson veered wildly from that notion.

When asked if Final Four or bust described the team's rallying cry, Patterson nodded. "We all feel that way," he said. "We all feel that if we lose before we get to the Final Four, it's not going to turn out the way we planned. Our record is good. We've accomplished a lot of things individually and as a team. But that main focus, that main goal, is to get to that national championship.

"And if we don't get to that, we won't look at it as a down year. But we'll look at it as not as successful as it could have been."

Borrowing a metaphor he credited to former Detroit Pistons and New Jersey Nets coach Chuck Daly, Calipari likened the NCAA Tournament to a pilot bringing his aircraft safely to the ground.

"The message I've given the team (is) land the plane,' the UK coach said. "... There's a storm. There's lightning. People drinking their 'Hater-Ade' and coming at you. There are going to be things written and said. It's all coming at you. Land the plane. Survive and advance."

When a reporter suggested Kentucky faced a Final Four-or-bust situation, Calipari scoffed.

"You've never coached before, I take it," he told the reporter. "When you're in the tournament, anything can happen."

In the 25 years the NCAA Tournament had 64- (or 65-team) fields, one thing has not happened. No team seeded 16th has ever beaten a team seeded No. 1. That record of fulitity is 0-100.

"At some point, a 'One' is going to get beat by a '16,'" Calipari said. "I just hope it's not here in New Orleans, but it's going to happen."

East Tennessee State, which lost as a No. 16 seed last year to No. 1 Pittsburgh by 10, hopes to be that historic team.

Guard Micah Williams promised a supreme effort. "We're a scrappy team," he said. "We're going to put it all out there on the court."

The Bucs hope to hang in there with Kentucky and let any pressure Kentucky might feel build to the breaking point.

"I think with them being a No. 1, a lot of people predicting them to go pretty far in the tournament, I would say they probably do have a little pressure on them," Williams said. "More than we do."

Interestingly, when a reporter posed a question to Wall in the formal news conference phase of interviews, he asked about how the Cats would approach the next three weeks.

If East Tennessee State heard that question, it surely brought a smile.

"The game of basketball is so much a mental game," forward Tommy Hubbard said. "If we stick around and hang around with them, that can kind of mess them up psychologically."

DeMarcus Cousins noted the importance of a good start to crush East Tennessee's spirit.

The longer the Bucs hang around, the more they believe they can beat Kentucky?

"Exactly," Cousins said. "We're going to take every game we play like we're playing Kansas."