When Kentucky won the national championship in 1996, Alexander Wolff began his Sports Illustrated cover story this way:
"They scarcely celebrate their national championships at Kentucky. They revive them, yes, and cherish them, most certainly. But celebration comes reluctantly to the people of the Commonwealth, who so surely expect NCAA titles."
Wolff is in the basketball Hall of Fame, but that paragraph never rang true to me. I stood among some 10,000 screaming, dancing people at the intersection of Euclid and Woodland avenues in Lexington both when the Wildcats beat UMass in the semifinal that year and again when they won it all against Syracuse. The same-sized mob gathered near campus when Kentucky won another championship in 1998. You didn't need a Kool & The Gang soundtrack to recognize those as serious celebrations.
Yes, expectations run sky-high at Kentucky, almost certainly higher than anywhere else. But it's too simplistic and cartoonish to paint all of Big Blue Nation as some unrelenting fan base that demands a national title every season. The 1998 title caused euphoria because it came out of nowhere. The Tubby Smith era ended acrimoniously not because he failed to hang another championship banner but because he didn't even reach another Final Four. Last year's Final Four run was a pleasant surprise for a team that was a No. 4 seed in a tough bracket, disappointing only in view of how winnable the chaotic tournament was in retrospect.
This year, however, Wolff's line would come much closer to hitting the mark. Of all the teams left in the Sweet 16, only one fan base is thinking cut down the nets or cry.
Kentucky fans surely expect this NCAA title.
That was evident last week in Louisville, where the sea of blue filled the KFC Yum! Center not expecting a challenge in the team's first two tournament games but hoping to see the beginning of a coronation. Failure is not an option. I asked Tanner Broughton, a teenage fan from Barbourville, Ky., how he would react if his beloved Wildcats fell short this year.
"I'd be traumatized," he said.
OK, so kids say the darnedest things. But they're not alone in that sentiment. Jared Schiff, a 29-year-old fan from Evansville, Ind., is confident Kentucky will win it all. His friends have already secured tickets and hotel rooms for the Final Four in New Orleans. And if the Cats lose?
"I'd be pissed," he said. "I'd be very upset."
Dick Gabriel is a longtime veteran Lexington broadcaster who hosts a weekly sports radio call-in show where Kentucky basketball is about all anybody wants to talk about year-round. Gabriel asked his listeners what would constitute a successful year for the Wildcats midway through the season and again as the tournament began.
"The distinct impression I get from the majority of people is that it's national title or bust," Gabriel said. "They would be very disappointed if Kentucky doesn't win it."
Let it be said that this is not an entirely unreasonable expectation. The Wildcats are 34-2 and bubbling over with NBA talent, led by the player who'll go No. 1 in this year's draft, Anthony Davis. They can dominate on defense and offense, as they showed while raining a 10-minute hellstorm on Iowa State in the round of 32. And the bracket definitely appears to have opened up for them, given the injuries and questions surrounding other contenders.
Kentucky fans haven't been this sure of a championship since that 1996 team, which coincidentally also lost only one regular-season game and stumbled in an SEC tournament final in New Orleans. But that Wildcats team was deeper and far more experienced and had entered the season as a prohibitive favorite.
Weird things happen in the tournament, too, which is why John Calipari and the Kentucky players did their best to deflect all questions about pressure this past weekend, saying they'll enjoy the ride no matter what.
"Yeah, it's going to be enough for them and for me," Calipari said. "Let's go for it. Let's play and let's do our best. ...
"If that's not good enough, then we've got to live with it, and I'll live with it. And I have lived with it."
But if Calipari doesn't lead this team to victory on a Monday night in April, he likely will face serious scrutiny for the first time in his three seasons in Lexington. Critics will begin to question whether his strategy of recruiting one-and-done players will ever lead to a title, especially after what is expected to be another player mass exodus to the NBA this spring.
"I've already had people call my show grumbling that they'll only get to see Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist for one year," Gabriel said. "If they fall short, they'll be even more critical of the one-and-dones and Cal's coaching."
For now, Wildcats fans still trust in Calipari and this team. Steve Ryan has been following the team since he was a little boy who wrote down the stats for Dan Issel in his notebook. He uses all his vacation from work every year to travel to every tournament game they play. He's expecting this year's trip to last a couple more weeks.
"If we keep up our defensive intensity, I don't have any doubt whatsoever that we're going to pull it off," said the 50-year-old from Lebanon Junction, Ky. "I think Calipari has created an atmosphere we haven't seen here since '96.
"I wouldn't be mad if they didn't win it all with as good of a season as they had. But, yeah, I'd be a little disappointed."
Kentucky fans surely would celebrate an eighth national title as intensely as the others. But this one would not be a surprise party.