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All in the family: Cats coping well with favorite label

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With a win over Kansas on Monday, UK will capture its eighth national title. (Chet White, UK Athletics) With a win over Kansas on Monday, UK will capture its eighth national title. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
NEW ORLEANS - Based on watching television or reading the newspaper, you would think Kentucky had already won the national championship.

The Wildcats haven't played a game all season they were expect to lose and national pundits seemingly argue more often about whether they could beat an NBA team than actual college opponents.

With just one game separating them from the crown that so many have long assumed would be theirs, the Cats are attacking that final obstacle the only way they know how.

"We're not thinking about (the national championship)," John Calipari said. "We're playing a basketball game. When the game's over, we're going to all look at each other and say, 'What just happened? What does this mean?' Right now we're not."

Perhaps no college team in recent memory has been saddled with such expectations. Not only has the national media all but penciled in "Kentucky" on the title trophy, but they are also cheered on by a fan base thirsty for a ring on the heels of a 14-year title drought that is long only by UK standards.

For any other team, that kind of pressure might be too much, but this precocious bunch of four freshman, two sophomores and two seniors remains unfazed with only Kansas remaining in its way of the still unspoken goal.

For their part, the Jayhawks are aware of the supposed supporting role they have been cast for in Monday's title game.

"If Kentucky plays their best, they're going to be so, so, so hard to beat by anybody if they play their best," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "It's easier said than done."

As the Jayhawks seem to do every year, they came into the season ranked in the top 15, but without an apparent Final Four pedigree. Forward Thomas Robinson was somewhat of an unknown quantity before blossoming into a player of the year candidate, while there were doubts whether Tyshawn Taylor was consistent enough to be successful as a full-time point guard.

After losing three games in its first 10, including one at the hands of the Wildcats, Kansas put the pieces together and went 19-2 to close the regular season and win its eighth straight Big 12 title. Even so, the Jayhawks entered the NCAA Tournament in somewhat of an underdog role on the same side of the bracket as Final Four favorites North Carolina and Syracuse.

Self still couldn't help but ponder the possibility of the NCAA's two winningest programs going head-to-head for a national championship.

"I dreamed about it as soon as I saw the brackets," Self said.

"I said, 'How cool would it be to play Kentucky in the finals?'"

Kansas' path to reach the point Self first dreamed about on Selection Sunday has been far from smooth. The Jayhawks have won three of their five games in the tournament by three points or less with an average margin of victory of 7.2 points. Meanwhile, UK hasn't won a game by fewer than eight points and boasts an average margin of victory of 12.6 points.

Now that the moment has arrived, Self can't help but be awed by his team's opponent.

"They've got a terrific team," Self said. "They're one of the better teams we've had in college basketball probably from a pure talent standpoint. They got six pros, three of them probably lottery picks. They're really, really, really talented."

In spite of Self's adverb-heavy praise of the Wildcats, Kansas' players aren't going to be intimidated. Though UK boasts six McDonald's All-Americans to none for the Jayhawks, they believe they belong on the same raised Superdome floor as the Cats.

"We feel confident going into this game," Taylor said. "I think that's just what it comes down to. We don't listen to what people say about Kentucky. We just do what we got to do and I think we'll be fine."

UK doesn't need to be sold on that.

"They're here for a reason," Darius Miller said. "It's not by mistake. They beat a lot of good teams and they're capable of beating us, too."

A healthy respect for their opponents has been a key ingredient in the Wildcats' winning formula thus far in the NCAA Tournament, and so too has been a spirit of fun. Coach Cal has long talked about wanting his team to be the one having the most fun of any in the country, and a loose atmosphere around the team testifies to the fact that they may be doing that.

"We're just trying to have fun with it all," Miller said. "That's what we've been taking all tournament. We're looking at it as the next game.  We're not trying to hype it up too much or anything like that. We're trying to play basketball. We're having fun with everything right now."

The enemy of fun is the kind of pressure that accompanies the assumption that the Wildcats are poised to win the title. To avoid it, they tune out everyone but the people who matter most.

"We're not thinking about any pressure or anything like that," Miller said. "Of course, people outside us try to put pressure on us. But we don't listen to people outside of what we call 'the family' anyway. It's been basketball for us the whole tournament. I think that's probably the reason we're so successful."

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