NEW ORLEANS — The pressure is everywhere for Kentucky to win a national title. Except in the locker room.
At least that's what the Wildcats (36-2) keep saying as they head into their national semifinal showdown with Louisville (30-9) on Saturday night in New Orleans.
Though coach John Calipari says that every game other teams play against Kentucky is a "Super Bowl," the Wildcats have carried weighty expectations since the start of the season that they would cut down the nets here.
Then there's the small-town college experience of basketball-crazed Lexington, which senior Darius Miller likens to a fishbowl, and a state that follows the team's every move. Add in that Kentucky hasn't won a title since 1998 and the 'Cats have to go through archrival Louisville to win a title, and the pressure just builds.
"You want to do it for these fans. I've never in my life been in a place that they're so passionate, but yet they've got a soft heart. They're not mean and nasty. They're not 'The Miserables.' They just want this thing to go well," Calipari said this week. "And they worry. They can't sleep at night. I sleep like a baby.
"These people are up going, 'I can't sleep.' So you want to do something for them. But the reality of it is, we can't even get into all that. This is about our team playing at their best. We'll deal with the result. As long as we're our best, we're prepared to go battle and we're aggressive and we're at our best and we all look at each other and say, 'We couldn't have played much better,' we'll take the result from there and we'll deal with it."
But any result other than a victory would be a failure in the eyes of Kentucky fans, who saw their team ascend to the top of the polls in the middle of the year and stay there, earning the top seed in the NCAA tournament. Calipari's most talented team, as many as six players could be in the NBA next season, is expected to seize the price that has eluded the program in recent NCAA tournaments.
"We are used to it by now," freshman Marquis Teague said. "We are pretty much used to all of this, the fans and the media. Things like that are normal for us."
Last year, Kentucky reached this stage of the tournament before shooting itself out of a title chance in a one-point loss to Connecticut. The same thing happened against West Virginia in the regional finals in Calipari's first year leading the Wildcats.
"This year it's just basketball. We've been doing this our whole lives," Miller said. "Little uptight last year, 'Need to win this, have to win this.' This year it's not like that at all.
"We put a lot of pressure on ourselves last year. We're trying to learn from that mistake."
AP National Player of the Year Anthony Davis agreed that they've stayed loose by sticking together and only focusing on the game, not the hoopla of this Final Four run.
"There's no pressure on us," he said. "Just go out there and play ball, have fun."
That means little has changed in their pregame schedule. While the other Final Four teams have had added opportunities to stroll Bourbon Street and be tempted by all the Big Easy has to offer, Kentucky only took one trip into the French Quarter on the first night, Miller said.Comment on this story
It's been all business since.
"We've prepared the same way like we have for any game," Kentucky forward Kyle Wiltjer said. "We've done the same thing every game. It's just another game for us."
A loss to Louisville might turn some of Big Blue Nation into "The Miserables" quickly, but guard Doron Lamb insists the level of intensity they faced has been constant since arriving in Lexington this season.
"We've had pressure on us since the summertime. Everybody expected us to go undefeated this whole season. We've got pressure on us. Everybody expects us to win every game by a lot of points," Lamb said. "But we're not feeling pressure right now. We know everybody's expecting us to win the whole thing, so we've just got to go out there and play harder than everybody else and prove to everybody we're the best team in the country."