- Myron Medcalf, ESPN Staff Writer
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No excuses now.
Anything short of a national title for Kentucky will equal failure. For the current team, for the program and for John Calipari.
No blue ribbons, Final Four banners or “One Shining Moment” appearances for Coach Cal’s team will not suffice. This has to be the year.
It’s as if college basketball’s higher powers orchestrated the NCAA tournament’s opening stretch to favor Big Blue. The disruption of brackets nationwide and the injury to Kendall Marshall has taken the Wildcats from a squad that should win the national title to a squad that must win it. Now.
Yes, in the Sweet 16 they’re facing an Indiana team that’s already beaten them once. But they’re not playing in Bloomington. And Kentucky is not the same squad that lost to IU in December.
Who else on that side of the bracket can beat the Wildcats? Baylor or Xavier? Come on.
In the West, Michigan State, Louisville, Marquette and Florida are all fine teams, but simply aren’t on Kentucky’s level.
Duke and Missouri have left the building, folks. Syracuse, the East’s 1-seed, lost a key piece in Big East Defensive Player of the Year Fab Melo. Ohio State is a talented team that might pose a threat to UK’s title hopes, but the Buckeyes must advance to New Orleans first. They’ve fallen short of expectations in recent years.
Kansas in the East could give the Cats a fight, too. But neither OSU nor KU mimicked Kentucky’s next-level dominance in the third round, as they struggled in their weekend matchups against clearly inferior foes.
Only North Carolina matched UK’s stomp-on-their-throats run to the Sweet 16. But the Tar Heels have suffered their second injury this postseason. And the latest could crush their championship campaign.
Right as John Henson returned, Marshall suffered a fractured wrist during North Carolina's 87-73 victory over Creighton on Sunday. His status for the duration of the NCAA tournament is currently unknown.
Point guards play quarterback in college basketball, especially in March. That Tar Heels squad proved it’s as talented as any assembly in the field during its first two NCAA tourney games, but Marshall’s injury jeopardizes its immediate future. UNC's two sparingly used backups have combined to average 11 minutes a game.
The uncertainty surrounding other top contenders places even more pressure on the Wildcats.
They’re healthy and hungry. They’re young, but that doesn’t matter.
They’re the undeniable favorites in the field. If that wasn’t absolutely clear when the bracket was announced, it’s certainly obvious now.
The first half of their 81-66 victory over Western Kentucky in the round of 64 -- the Wildcats led 45-26 at halftime -- resembled a hardwood version of the Klitschko brothers fighting the Jonas brothers. Terrence Jones scored 22 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. Anthony Davis blocked seven shots.
Then they toyed with one of the Big 12’s best during an 87-71 win over Iowa State on Saturday. The Cyclones played tough behind Royce White’s 25-point, nine-rebound effort. Even tied the game at 42.
And then the Wildcats came to their senses and decided that they’d hovered too close to the brink of defeat. After ISU drew even, UK ran off a torrid 34-10 run in a matter of 10 minutes. Goodbye, Cyclones.
Their ability to shift into a different gear on both ends of the floor is only rivaled by North Carolina. Healthy North Carolina.
Davis’ presence gives Calipari a defensive stopper that he hasn’t had since Marcus Camby played for him at UMass. Stars surround him.
In the months leading up to the NCAA tournament, many wondered if a team anchored by freshmen could become the first to win a national title during the one-and-done era. It was the fallback to any argument that guaranteed a Wildcats title.
“They’re good, but they’re still so young … anything could happen” became a common refrain.
It was a protective mechanism for faithful Kentucky fans and those who’d slotted the Wildcats as the victors in their office pools. If UK missed the national championship, then its youth would serve as a reasonable excuse.
Well, throw it out the window with the rest of the prewritten explanations.
They’re void now.
The Wildcats have every tool to win the national championship. We knew that in November. But their cutthroat commencement to the Big Dance even surpassed those early expectations.
They’re better than every remaining team in the field. And they must prove it. Early NCAA tournament maneuvering -- and one crucial injury -- turned their tunnel to the title into an interstate.
With that comes a new level of anticipation. One that features two games in New Orleans and confetti in Calipari’s slicked-back hair.
If that’s not the final chapter of the 2011-12 campaign for this program, then every postseason criticism of the players, coaches and team will be fair game.
Calipari’s legacy will be defined by this team’s inability to win his first crown. Davis and Co. will be called flukes and chokers or worse.
Kentucky’s national title “drought” -- the Wildcats haven’t won the big one in (gasp!) 14 years -- will continue.
And questions will linger. How does a team with that much talent, with that recruiting pipeline, fail to win a national championship … again?
The Wildcats can avoid that backlash if they just do what they’re supposed to do in the coming weeks.
Or they can take the full brunt of it.
They would certainly deserve it if they’re not on the podium next month.