ATLANTA – At Kentucky, the bar is set a lot higher than most places.
National championship or bust.
“It’s Kentucky,” coach John Calipari said. “Do you expect anything else?”
Tonight, the Wildcats will be matched against one of the few college basketball programs that can give them a run for passion and tradition. If Kentucky brings up Adolph Rupp, Indiana can quickly counter with Bob Knight. Few fans get as worked up about the game as those in the Bluegrass State – unless you happen be among those hoops-crazy Hoosiers.
“There’s always been a special aura around and about Indiana to me,” coach Tom Crean said, “and I would say the same thing about Kentucky.”
With a dozen national titles between them (seven for the Wildcats, five for Indiana), this is about as good as it gets without actually being at the Final Four. Throw in some enticing subplots – from Crean leading a remarkable turnaround in Bloomington after the storied program fell on hard times, to Calipari positioning Kentucky for another title run with his latest one-and-likely-done dream team – and there’s no doubt the Georgia Dome will be rockin’ for this South Regional semifinal.
But this is merely a prelude for the top-seeded Wildcats (34-2). Unless they are cutting down the nets in New Orleans, this season will be judged a failure.
“You’re supposed to win every game by 25,” Calipari said. “If you’re winning by 15, what’s the issue? What’s going on with the program? If you lose, God forbid, lose one, how can we lose this game?”
Fourth-seeded Indiana (27-8) handed the Wildcats one of their defeats, a buzzer-beating 73-72 victory in December.
“I feel like we’re playing with a lot more confidence than we were playing with back then,” said junior forward Christian Watford, who hit the winning 3-pointer against the Wildcats.
Kentucky won 24 straight before losing to Vanderbilt in the championship game of the Southeastern Conference tournament.
“Their team is clicking on all cylinders,” Crean said.