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Championship moments: Title expectations countered by peace of mind

Every championship team is defined by championship moments. They happen behind closed doors in practices, during regular-season games, and, of course, in the championship game. The following is the first in a series of articles chronicling the championship moments during 2011-2012 Kentucky basketball season.

Read Ken’s championship moments in the Kansas game

Ever since Adolph Rupp was prowling the sideline, winning four NCAA titles and one NIT crown, Kentucky basketball fans have been delivering great expectations to whoever is in charge of the Wildcat basketball program, so much so that anticipating greatness in the Cats has become a yearly rite of passage for the UK basketball faithful, perpetuated by decades of winning.

The advent of the 2011-2012 Kentucky basketball season was no different. In fact, John Calipari’s third consecutive No. 1 recruiting class of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Anthony Davis, Marquis Teague and Kyle Wiltjer, along with the return of sophomores Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb, as well as senior Darius Miller, resulted in UK being the consensus No. 2 ranked team in the preseason polls.

Staying true to form, UK fans became downright fanatical about how good they thought Coach Cal’s third team could be, as they lit up sports talk radio, blogs, and message boards with an enthusiasm unparalleled since the mid-1990s. The passion was palpable as Cat fans proudly pontificated that this team just might be good enough to hang banner No. 8.

In the minds of Wildcat followers, the championship stage was set: The team was the right mix of youth and experience, and the talent level was thought to be unmatched (despite the No. 2 ranking). Cat fans were ready for the season-long rumble, but were the players prepared for what surely would be an arduous journey?

It was a Kentuckian, someone who grew up in the middle of Cat country, who smartly knew the key to the Wildcats’ championship success was the players’ commitment to be a team.

“It takes a lot of hard work and a lot of dedication,” Mason County’s Darius Miller said about winning a championship before the season started. “There are going to be a lot of sacrifices made. One big aspect is that we have to be a team, and be on the same page. We have to be like a family. If people are on different pages then it’s not going to work.”

Having made it to the doorstep of the national title game a year before as a freshman, winning a title was certainly on Terrence Jones’ mind. It was one of the main reasons he bypassed the NBA Draft and returned to UK for his sophomore season.

Championship expectations were already placed upon the shoulders of the Wildcats when Coach Cal pronounced at Big Blue Madness, "We do more than move the needle; we are the needle." (photo by Chet White, UK Athletics)

“It hasn’t been discussed, but it’s what everyone wants,” Jones said. “I know it’s what everyone wants. We haven’t talked about it as a team, but it’s what everyone’s goal is.”

Jones, like Miller, knew sacrifice and flexibility might be required to attain a title.

“I just wanted to come back and win,” Jones said. “I don’t care about who I have to guard. I just like playing basketball, it doesn’t matter what position I’m in.”

It was Miller and Jones thinking and saying the right thing, but it was the hurricane of a freshman, Kidd-Gilchrist, who was setting the on-court championship tone.

“Yesterday in practice it was just his level of intensity,” John Calipari said about Kidd-Gilchrist in October of 2011. “He just brings a burning desire to get better. He was in the building last night until like 11 o’clock shooting. He’s like the guys I’ve had here who … they are chasing greatness.”

Chasing greatness. For decades, college basketball players have been striving to achieve greatness, to win a national title. But only one team per year is anointed champion. With that comes pressure, sometimes tremendous pressure, to not only win, but win it all. And when Kentucky is emblazoned across one’s chest, the pressure is magnified by thick, big blue bifocals, especially when the Cats are perceived to be “loaded.”

But Calipari wanted his players focused, not on winning and the accompanying pressures, but on being a good teammate.

“I like our guys to have peace of mind,” Calipari said in the preseason. “I want to tell them they are a talented group, and they can do what they want to do.  But I want them to have peace of mind, do the best you can, be your brother’s keepers; and what is supposed to happen will happen.”

Thus began the 2011-2012 Kentucky basketball season.