In some ways, Kentucky’s path to the Final Four is even harder now — at least for the fans.
For the players, I’m sure they much prefer the group that is heading to Atlanta now, and not the group everyone expected before the tournament began. But for us, the fans, the new path brings on an all new case of anxiety, and I would argue it’s much worse.
I’ll explain: If Kentucky were to play Virginia and then Cincinnati or Tennessee to reach the Final Four, we could live with an early exit from Atlanta. Virginia is (was) the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, so a loss to the Cavaliers would’ve been understandable, as would any outcome in the Elite Eight.
But now, with the No. 9 seed and then the No. 7/11 winner standing between Kentucky and San Antonio, anything short of winning the South region will be considered a huge disappointment. The path is wide open, and Kentucky has to take advantage of this unimaginable opportunity.
How we watch the games changes now, too.
In 2012 and 2015, when Kentucky was the favorite in every game it played, the fans’ mindset was “Please don’t mess this up” because expectations were so high. It made for a fun, but nerve-racking March. Wins were celebrated with a sigh of relief, not so much euphoria; whereas in years like 2011 and 2014, each game had far less pressure, so wins were much more fun. The mindset in those years was “Okay, let’s see if we can do something special,” and each new step forward was considered as somewhat of a bonus. We didn’t expect to go far, so going far was a lot more fun. There wasn’t as much pressure to win, therefore the games were a little easier to watch.
Now we’re back to those 2012 and 2015 runs, which isn’t fair to this team, but it’s how things have played out. Kentucky will be the favorite in both games in Atlanta (should they get two games), and all expectations are for Kentucky to finish the job and reach the Final Four. We’re back to the “Please don’t mess this up” mindset of the past, and it’s going to make for a nerve-racking weekend.
Of course, we wouldn’t trade this new path for the alternative. Give us Kansas State and Nevada/Loyola-Chicago all day over Virginia and Cincinnati/Tennessee. But now that it’s here, the anxiety is real as the Cats go from the South’s scary team with upset potential to the South’s heavy favorite to win the region.
Please don’t mess this up.