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March 29, 2012NEW ORLEANS - The pressure's on Kentucky.
That seems to be the consensus at this Final Four, where the Wildcats - the NCAA Tournament's top seed and, at 36-2, the favorite to win the national title - enter Saturday at the Superdome with the greatest of expectations.
Add the fact that John Calipari's team has to face its biggest rival - Final Four underdog Louisville - in a Saturday semifinal, and there's no bigger bull's eye than the one on the Cats' backs.
In other words, the Final Four is a whole lot like the rest of Kentucky's season.
"We've been the favorite this whole year, really," guard Doron Lamb said. "Everybody wants us to win every game, so there's not really any pressure on us. We're used to this."
The Wildcats opened the season ranked No. 2 in the Associated Press and USA Today/ESPN coaches polls. They jumped to No. 1 in both polls the fourth week of the season before a loss at Indiana, then leapt back into the top spot for the final eight regular-season polls.
Kentucky lost one game in the regular season and one in the Southeastern Conference Tournament, but the Cats haven't been an underdog this season. They've grown accustomed to expectations.
And Kentucky isn't the only team playing with pressure this weekend. Louisville, Kansas and Ohio State haven't had seasons as spectacular as UK's, but all three teams have the same goal.
"There are very few times you get to a Final Four," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. "It's very difficult to get here. So believe me now: This is our chance to win the championship, and we've got everything to lose, just like they do because it' s not easy to get here."
So nobody's playing pressure-free.
But nobody's carrying the weight the Wildcats are.
"I'm going to tell you, any way you cut it, the pressure is on, and it's doubly now," ESPN analyst Dick Vitale said on a conference call Thursday. "Why is it doubly? You've got an incredible rivalry, which we all know exists."
That's the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry, which raises the stakes for the Wildcats.
Losing at this time of year always stings. That pain would be magnified - certainly for UK's fans, and probably for some of the players themselves - if the loss came to a Louisville team that struggled for much of the season before catching fire late.
"So there has got to be pressure, and (Calipari) knows it," Vitale said. "But I'll tell you this: He's the kind of guy that just has a special way of preparing and getting people ready to play."
This season, that method has focused on getting his players to put aside the distractions that come with playing for a top-ranked Kentucky team. This team opened the season with designs on big things, but Calipari has tried to steer them clear of the big picture.
A Kentucky player visited Calipari in his office this week, the UK coach said, and talked openly about the team's desire to win the NCAA title. Calipari quickly silenced that chatter.
"Forget about the tournament," Calipari said. "Forget about the title. We've got a basketball game to play Saturday; just worry about that. So I've got to get these guys in that frame of mind, because you just want them letting loose and playing."
That approach has paid off this season for Kentucky.
Off the court, the Cats tuned out the chatter. They beat North Carolina in the most-hyped regular-season game of the college basketball season. In the Sweet 16, they turned a deaf ear to revenge talk and took care of business in a rematch against Indiana.
"That's something we've been doing all year, keeping it amongst what we call our family," senior Darius Miller said. "We don't try to pay any attention to any outside sources or anything like that."
On the court, the Cats have handled a different sort of pressure. They won nine games by single-digit margins, including some - at Tennessee, at Vanderbilt, at Mississippi State - in which they trailed late.
"We have great leadership on this team," Lamb said. "We don't panic when we're down in games, really. We always come back."
The Cats might have to draw on that experience on Saturday, when they'll be under more pressure than any other team in the Superdome.
Not that it's anything new.
"We knew from day one that the target was on our back; everybody was coming after us," point guard Marquis Teague said. "We understand; Coach Cal explained it to us from day one. I think we've got a great group of guys that handle it the right way, talk to each other and just tell each other we'll be all right, we've got each other's backs.
"I feel like we're prepared for stuff like this. We're built for stuff like this."