UK Men's Basketball

Mark Story: Handling the pressure of a 'championship or bust' year at Kentucky

Andrew Harrison celebrated Kentucky's 75-72 victory over Michigan in the Elite 8 last season.
Andrew Harrison celebrated Kentucky's 75-72 victory over Michigan in the Elite 8 last season.

When it comes to Kentucky Wildcats men's basketball, there has long been a saying that the goal for every season is to win the national championship.

In reality, that is not true. Even at Kentucky, there are many years that begin with even the most ardent UK backer knowing the Cats are unlikely to spend the final Monday of the season cutting down nets.

However, there are years — 1978, 1984, 1988, 1996, 2002 and 2012 come to mind — when the only way a Kentucky season will be perceived as a success is if the Wildcats win it all.

The Cats are about to embark on another such season.

John Calipari's 2014-15 Wildcats boast a roster that includes six of the top eight scorers back from the team that lost to Connecticut in last season's national championship game.

The Cats boast a robust nine McDonald's All-Americans. They are a team that someday will produce many — nine, 10, anybody for 11? — NBA first-round draft choices.

Given all that, it's hard to imagine a scenario in which the 2014-15 Kentucky season is judged a success if a national title is not claimed.

"I know I'll feel terrible if we don't win it all," said UK junior forward Alex Poythress. "I'll feel the same way I felt last year."

Added sophomore forward Derek Willis: "Last year, we came in second, and that was stupid. We're just too talented to not win it. I feel like, right now, everyone across the nation is like 'Pick a team to win the tournament?' They would probably say us. And I think that is the way it should be. Because I feel like we have the most talented team."

Those who have played at Kentucky in previous "national championship or bust" seasons say the key is to block out external pressures and concentrate on the daily process of improving.

Rick Robey was a senior starter for Joe B. Hall on Kentucky's 1978 NCAA championship team. The senior nucleus of that team, Jack Givens, James Lee, Mike Phillips and Robey, were freshmen when the Wildcats lost to UCLA in the 1975 NCAA title game.

"We knew people expected us to win it all," Robey said. "But I don't really remember feeling that much pressure game-to-game. Of course, as a young kid, if I'd known then what I know now, I'd have probably never made a shot. When you are young, you just play."

Kenny Walker was a sophomore starter for Hall's 1984 UK team. That team had Sam Bowie returning after missing two years with leg injuries. Bowie joined a front line that also had Melvin Turpin, Walker and incoming freshman Winston Bennett.

"A lot of people were talking about us having the best front line in Kentucky history," Walker said. "Heck, a lot of people were talking about us having the best front line in college basketball history."

There was scuttlebutt that year, Walker remembered, that the 1983-84 Cats would go undefeated. Instead, they lost four regular-season games.

Boosted by the insertion of previously injured guard Dicky Beal into the starting lineup, the '84 Wildcats put things back together and made it to the Final Four — where they suffered through a horrid 3-for-33 shooting performance in the second half of a national semifinals loss to Georgetown.

"The way we went out, it leaves a bad taste," Walker said. 'It's rough when you go to the Final Four and can't feel totally good about it. But we thought we had the team to win it all."

The current Cats seem to understand that, while there are no certainties in a sport whose champion is determined via a one-and-done tournament, the best bet to ensure a national title if you have the most talent is to win each day along the journey.

"We're not even thinking about the national championship right now; that's months away," said sophomore forward Marcus Lee. "We're just trying to get better and figure each other out."

Still, UK players do know what is expected of them in 2014-15.

"We came up short a year ago," sophomore center Dakari Johnson said. "The goal for this year, obviously, is to take that final step and win the national championship."

If Kentucky doesn't win it all? "You can still feel good about the season," insists sophomore guard Aaron Harrison, "but (it would mean) we didn't accomplish our goals."