Kentucky fans live with the sweet agony of expectationsby J.W. Miller on 04/01/19
In sports, there are hopes and then there are expectations. Fans of Auburn’s basketball team has hopes, while fans of the team they beat on Sunday to earn their first trip to the Final Four live - and die - with expectations.
And while the War Eagle’s overtime defeat of Kentucky showed a team that played ferocious defense and clutch shooting, Big Blue Nation’s latest nightmare revealed a team that could not hit shots, missed too many free throws and suffered too many defensive lapses. Auburn fans are probably still dancing around the Toomer oaks today because their hopes of going to the first Final Four in history have been realized. Meanwhile, in Lexington, couches that lined State Street in preparation for the ritual bonfire that celebrates a Wildcat triumph, have been returned to the houses to await another day.
The failed expectation of Kentucky basketball reaching its annual goal is harder to take than mere lost hopes. Auburn wasn’t expected to be the last SEC school standing while Kentucky, Tennessee and LSU sit at home. But their fans had hopes that Coach Bruce Pearl’s team of over-achievers might overcome the hint of scandal after two assistant coaches were fired for recruiting improprieties. They had hopes after they lost to Kentucky in Lexington 80-53 that they would correct their mistakes and turn around their season. They had hopes that they would get hot at the right time and blow past their SEC rivals to win the conference tournament. Once those hopes were realized, they had hopes that a No. 5 seed could play above its ranking and win a national championship.
If it doesn't happen, there is still the victory that your team wasn’t expected to do much but outperformed the prognosticators, keeping hope alive. Even failure comes with the satisfaction of a good effort, e.g. Wofford, Buffalo or even Houston. Yes, the mood on the Plains today shows clearly that hopes are are a positive thing, whether they are fully realized or not.
Now, let me tell you about unfulfilled expectations. Kentucky fans expect their Wildcats to win every game by 20 points. Unrealistic maybe, but that’s what is expected. They look at their previous eight national champions and expect every team that wears the royal blue will do the same thing. At worst, they look at the 2015 team that came into the Final Four at 38-0 and expected them to roll to 40 wins and bring another title back to the Bluegrass. Even this year’s team that was a pre-season co-favorite with Duke was expected to bounce back from the opening-game pummeling by the Blue Devils and exact their revenge in the Final Four.
But when the reality falls short of the expectations, it’s painful. Expectations are not blown away with time like lost hopes. Expectations gnaw at you and you don’t forget them. Big Blue Nation carries the burden of many unfulfilled expectations: A 3-for-33 second half shooting in a 1984 Final Four loss; Nazr Mohammed hitting 1 of 6 free throws in a 1997 Final Four overtime loss; the 2010 Cold ‘Cats of John Wall-DeMarcus Cousins who hit only 4 of 32 from behind the line in a seven-point Elite Eight loss; Terrence Jones going 1 for 5 in a two-point 2011 Final Four loss; even warrior P.J. Washington’s missed free throws both last year and against Auburn linger.
A team that is expected to contend for a championship but fails, falls with a thud. That is Big Blue Nation today. Fans are upset at the loss, second-guessing the plan and some are even calling for Coach John Calipari’s head because in his ten years at Kentucky he has only taken his team to four Final Fours and won only one national championship.
So good luck to Auburn whose fans hope that they can win two more games, while Kentucky’s fans live in the sweet agony of expectations, watching Calipari's recruiting to see which new players will come in and again set the bar at nothing less than another national championship.