LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Open practices at this NCAA site came and went with the familiar squeaks of sneakers audible until it was Kentucky's turn to take the floor. In an instant, a palatable buzz engulfed the building.
This is Kentucky's show; Western Kentucky is the opening act.
Big Blue faithful are expected out in full force when the Wildcats (32-2) begin their quest for an eighth national title against the Hilltoppers (16-18) on Thursday just 75 miles away from home.
"What game? Is there a game?" Kentucky coach John Calipari joked Wednesday after he and his players answered 15 questions ranging from the coach's name surfacing in NBA circles to the fashion statement the 'Cats were making with snapback hats.
It's easy to forget the Hilltoppers.
They struggled so much this season that when they held a promotion for $1 tickets only about 2,000 fans showed up. Nearly four times as many Wildcats' fans watched Kentucky practice Wednesday at the KFC Yum! Center.
"It's going to be a crazy environment," Western Kentucky guard Jamal Crook said. "They pack their fans in the arena everywhere they go. So you know it's going to be crazy."
Western Kentucky was a longshot to even be here and is a 25-point underdog. But the Hilltoppers have won seven straight games, coming from behind each time, culminating with Tuesday's record rally.
With President Barack Obama in attendance, Western Kentucky overcame an NCAA-record 16-point deficit with less than 5 minutes to go in a 59-58 victory over Mississippi Valley State to become the sixth team to win a game in the tournament with a losing record.
"We're expecting to throw the first punch out there and do something tomorrow that a lot of people haven't seen before," said Hilltoppers guard Derrick Gordon, a teammate of Kentucky's Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in high school at St. Patrick's in New Jersey. "Nobody's ever seen a 16 seed take down a No. 1 seed, so we're just trying to make history."
The Hilltoppers have had tournament success against Kentucky, knocking the Wildcats off in 1971 on the way to the school's only Final Four that was later vacated by the NCAA because of rules violations.
This Western Kentucky squad — featuring seven freshmen — is a confident group. They've fought back against every foe since falling to 9-18, never folding even after coach Ken McDonald was fired in January after a 5-11 start and replaced with Ray Harper.
"They're guys that will not quit," Harper said. "They won't die."
Even if they acknowledge all this winning — and travel — is starting to take its toll.
"I think we're running on fumes right now," Hilltoppers forward Vinny Zollo said. "It's been total adrenaline. It's been a ride for us."
The ride is just beginning for Kentucky and a fan base that has watched Calipari's first two teams send loads of talent to the NBA draft, but fail to bring home the biggest amateur title in basketball.
"Being in this tournament, you've got to take it one game at a time," Kentucky forward Terrence Jones said.
And if it's national title or bust, the 'Cats aren't listening.
"We don't hear or read it," freshman and player of the year candidate Anthony Davis said. "We don't worry about the game or the tournament. Just go out there and have fun."
Calipari said the greatest thing about the NCAA tournament is its "one-and-doneness" even as the Wildcats' odds keep improving after another title contender, Syracuse, declared center Fab Melo ineligible for the tournament.
"My job is just to get my team to play as well as they can play. They'll take us where we're going. It's not going to be me," Calipari said. "As far as this being the best unit, I'm going to tell you, in '96 I had a heck of a team, 2008, a heck of a team. Last year's team, heck of team."
None of those teams won it all for Calipari, who has been to Final Fours with three schools even though trips by Massachusetts and Memphis were later vacated by the NCAA because of rules violations.
Kentucky, a No. 1 seed for the 11th time, would face either Iowa State or defending national champion Connecticut on Saturday if the Wildcats beat the Hilltoppers in a South region filled with demons from their past and present.Comment on this story
The Huskies eliminated Kentucky last year and the Wildcats could face Indiana and Duke later in the tournament. The former has handed the Wildcats one of their two losses this year, the latter — and Christian Laettner — knocked them out of the 1992 tournament with "The Shot."
At Kentucky, national championships are expected. And the natives are restless — they haven't won since 1998.
Calipari's third straight No. 1 freshman class and a trio of holdovers — Doron Lamb, Darius Miller and Jones — have been preparing all season to end the title drought.
"Since day one we've been working hard for this tournament, getting ready for this," Lamb said. "We have to prove to the world that we are the best team in the country."