BOZICH | For Kentucky, It's Win Or ?????
ST. LOUIS (WDRB) -- I don't need to consult Reggie Miller, Nate Silver or Las Vegas to forecast the outlook for John Calipari's Kentucky basketball team:
Beat Kansas State Friday night and the Wildcats will be positioned to regain every bit of the juice this team had when the season began last November.
Lose by even a point and this season will be recorded as the most colossal disappointment of Calipari's career.
It's really that simple. This is a game Kentucky (24-10) has to win. There is no in-between. There's no other way spin it or tweak it. The players from both teams know that.
"We don't have to win this game," Kansas State guard Marcus Foster said. "They have to win it because they are the higher seed and everybody thinks they're going to the Final Four."
Well, they used to think that. That's part of the issue, Marcus.
When Kentucky guys start saying they're not reading what people are saying about them or talking about how nobody expects them to win, you know this season has not been the 40-game love-in that so many predicted.
In November many were picking Kentucky to win the title. Today none of the national voices are picking UK to win the title, right?
"I'm not sure," said Alex Poythress, the team's sophomore forward. "It really doesn't matter what people think. We control our own destiny. Just try to win games and get to our ultimate goal."
Should I take that as a "No?"
"I haven't really seen a lot of people pick anybody," Poythress said. "I really try to stay away from social media."
"A lot of the talk is we're too young and we can't do it," Kentucky center Willie Cauley-Stein said. "We're the underdog."
That's true. It's also terribly untrue. Kentucky is actually favored by 6 ½ points to win its opening NCAA Tournament game at the Scottrade Center. The wise guys believe there is a considerable gap in the talent of Kentucky and the undersized, under-manned group Bruce Weber coaches at Kansas State.
Heck, Kentucky might not even be an underdog if they earn a game on Sunday against Wichita State, the top team in the Midwest Regional. At least one computer ranking is already calling a Kentucky-Wichita State game even.
Weber does not disagree. He coached an Illinois team that was stopped one game from winning a national championship in this town nine years ago. When Weber looks at Kentucky, he sees everything that a coach would want in a basketball team.
"I don't know if they're the Number One (most athletically gifted team in the nation)" Weber said, "but they're definitely in that top group in the country when you think about athleticism, size, length, basketball abilities.
"They've got so many guys who can just go make plays for you. Part of that is their athleticism, their length and their ability to do that. I just think they had a big learning curve. It's taken them a little bit of time.
"Obviously I think last weekend they played real good basketball. I'm hoping they don't do that tomorrow night, but you've got to expect they'll play at a high level. This is the time of year when people turn it up. I'm sure they're going to be geeked up, ready to go."
Think of it this way: Calipari brought six McDonald's all-Americans onto his roster to join Poythress who also played in that prestigious game one year earlier. Kansas State has signed four McDonald's all-Americans in the history of its program and the last one – Wally Judge – just finished his career at Rutgers.
Kentucky is only an underdog against the narrative of what they were supposed to be this season – the number one team in the country, a group with more overall talent than the 2012 NCAA champions.
You cannot start the season as the consensus Number One team in the nation and sign more McDonald's all-Americans than most entire conferences recruit without being required to do something remarkable in March.
John Calipari has usually done something remarkable in March. The last time he finished back-to-back seasons without a single NCAA Tournament victory was 2002-04 at Memphis.
The Wildcats should not lose Friday night. In fact, I'll up the ante and say that the Wildcats will not lose Friday night.
They're bigger, faster and more talented than Kansas State. Of course, Kentucky has been bigger, faster and more talented than several teams that have defeated Calipari's team this season.
That's why the national voices are no longer picking the Wildcats to do the things they were picking them to do in November. That's why Kentucky needs to win to make certain this season is not filed as a colossal disappointment.
"I think we can go as far as we want to go," UK freshman Aaron Harrison said. "We were pre-season Number One and we can end up at the end of the season Number One as well."
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