(JACKSONVILLE, Fl.) – Kentucky’s gilded path to the promised land of Minneapolis got noticeably more difficult this past weekend. After a 79-44 blowout over overmatched Abilene Christian and a 62-56 nail-biter over Wofford in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, the Wildcats now find themselves headed towards Kansas City on a final dash to paydirt.
No one said it would be easy. Besides the usual Calipari to Mars coaching rumors that surface this time of the year, Kentucky fans also had to deal with the unsettling news of PJ Washington’s mysterious foot injury. From walking boot, to hard cast, to scooter assistance, rumors swirled unabated as an anxious fan base awaited final word on their All-American’s playing status. No PJ? No problem—at least in Jacksonville this past weekend. Nothing against Abilene Christian or Wofford, but from here on in, winning without PJ would be nothing short of a pipedream.
For all of BBN, National Championship Number Nine is the ultimate coveted prize. But after all the near misses over the past several seasons, reaching—at the very least—another Final Four will be a critical cog to John Calipari’s coaching legacy. Truth be told, the fan base is getting antsy. Ten straight years of one and done talent with only one title to his name just won’t cut the mustard with the blue-blooded diehards.
Standing in the way this year are Houston and either North Carolina or Auburn—all formidable opponents. None of them will be easy victories, especially if PJ remains sidelined. Granted, Phi Slama Jama, Michael Jordan, and Charles Barkley aren’t walking through that door, but the Cougars (33-3), the Tar Heels (29-6), and the Tigers (28-9) still yield plenty of firepower. Plus, the Wildcats (29-6) have chinks (no pun intended) of their own in their Big Blue armor. The offense still becomes inexplicably stagnant for long stretches at a time. The lack of willing passers this late in the season remains disturbing, to say the least.
Coach Cal has talked all season about the players conquering themselves. “Before you can conquer someone else, you’ve got to conquer yourself,” he reminded the media this weekend. “It means conditioning, a lot of it means pushing through comfort. A lot of it means don’t drink that poison when you’re flattered.”
Reid Travis added to the conquering yourself narrative with an explanation worthy of a Ph.D. dissertation. “Just understanding that it’s that little thing inside of you that’s telling you to stop, that you can’t do it, that you’re not good enough,” said the scholarly Stanford grad transfer. “If you can conquer that, then you can conquer fans…a bad play here, a bad play there…that’s the biggest thing I think (Coach Cal’s) preached all year to our team. It’s not about any other team and what they’re doing. It’s about us playing good basketball. We’ll be just fine. It’s the same thing on the individual level. If you’re confident in yourself and you’re preaching good thoughts to yourself, then things will work themselves out. It starts in the tournament.”
Freshman guard Tyler Herro was a little less revealing. When asked his thoughts on what Coach Cal meant by conquering yourself, he replied hesitantly, “I don’t know.”
And such is the life of a college basketball coach such as John Calipari. Much of what you preach to players often falls on deaf ears. After all, they’re not machines or robots or computers or whatever. No matter how much you show and tell, they’re just a bunch of 18 and 19-year-olds with video games to play and big dreams to fulfill. When it comes right down to it, making it to Minneapolis is a bit of a crapshoot. A bad bounce here, a sprained foot there, a blown call or two and you’ll quickly be watching Alaska shows on cable TV.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t have high expectations every year—especially if you’re the head coach of greatest tradition in the history of college basketball. Settling for mediocrity is a sure path to failure. Eight out of ten Sweet Sixteens, you say? I say not good enough! Final Fours are what matter and four straight years without one is a travesty in the eyes of many. Sure, we’ve been spoiled, but that’s what makes BBN unique. It’s how we roll.
So, for the Wildcats to be successful this weekend in Kansas City, they’ll have to conquer themselves. The opponent is immaterial. It doesn’t matter whether PJ plays or not. Forget about the crowd, or the refs, or the bright lights of the TV cameras. Put thoughts of your future NBA riches on hold for just a second and bask in your one shining moment on the biggest stage of your college basketball careers. Just focus on falling back on your skills, talent, and training—what you’ve worked for your entire life. Listen to your coach.
“He’s a wise man,” Reid reminded me.
Yes he is. For this particular championship run, John Calipari wants and needs it as much as anybody. He needs to conquer himself. Kansas City here we come. It’s Final Four or bust!
Dr. John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Group Media. If you enjoy his writing, you can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.