ATLANTA -- Guard Darius Miller, Kentucky's lone senior, loitered in the Georgia Dome on Sunday afternoon wearing a net around his neck. Point guard Marquis Teague spouted platitudes into a cell phone connected to a sports talk radio show. In a nearby hallway, Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart stood surrounded by camera- and voice recorder-toting reporters wondering how the Bluegrass State will survive the week.
That's how it will go until they tip off Saturday in New Orleans. The grown-ups will freak out because Kentucky is facing Louisville in the Final Four. The kids will keep enjoying the ride.
The questions about Kentucky's 82-70 Elite Eight win against Baylor lasted only a few minutes before everyone moved on to the Cardinals. That makes sense. In the Commonwealth of Kentucky, Kentucky playing Louisville in the Final Four has the gravity of Alabama facing Auburn in the BCS title game. (Or, perhaps more accurately, Alabama facing Auburn in the soon-to-be-created national semifinals.) They will talk about this game for years. Bourbon distilleries will have a record first week of April no matter who loses, because sorrows will have to be drowned.
But the Wildcats don't care who they play. They start freshmen from Chicago, Indianapolis and Somerdale, N.J., and sophomores from New York and Portland, Ore. Miller, the sixth man, is from Maysville, Ky., and therefore understands what this game means outside the Kentucky locker room, but he is far too grizzled to allow the hype to affect him. Former Wildcat Rex Chapman tweeted it best last week concerning Miller's unflappability: "This? THIS? THIS AIN'T [expletive]. I played 4 BILLY GILLISPIE, FOOLS!"
Center Anthony Davis probably summed up the Wildcats' attitude best. "We think of it," Davis said, "as Kentucky against the next team."
Kentucky coach John Calipari understands the interest, even if he doesn't share it. "Me personally, I've been at Kentucky three years," Calipari said. "I've said it all along. We play them one time a year, and we're not in the same league. Why do you guys get all worked up? And then they go crazy."
Louisville coach Rick Pitino, who saw the other side of the rivalry when he coached Kentucky from 1989-97, understands it far better than his counterpart. "There will be people at Kentucky that will have a nervous breakdown if they lose to us," Pitino said after beating Florida on Saturday. "You've got to watch. They've got to put the fences up on bridges."
But there are more pressing concerns for Big Blue Nation than whether Louisville Pitino will break out his white suit for the matchup. The lasting memory of the Baylor win probably won't be any of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's team-high 19 points or Terrence Jones' box-score stuffing. It will be Davis, the 6-foot-10 National Player of the Year, rolling on the ground clutching his left knee early in the second half after a midair collision with Baylor's Perry Jones III. The scene had to terrify everyone in blue for a moment. Though Kentucky would be excellent even without Davis, his ability to alter an opponent's entire offensive strategy pushes the Wildcats to another level.
The mass exhale probably came when Calipari rubbed his fallen center's head and smiled. Soon after, Davis got up, took some treatment on the bench and went back into the game. "The knee is doing fine," Davis said after finishing an 18-point, 11-rebound day. "I just bumped knees with Perry Jones, and it started hurting real bad. But I knew my team needed me to play. I wasn't going to sit out, especially with a trip to the Final Four [on the line]."
At the time, it seemed the Wildcats didn't need Davis to return. They had fallen behind 10-5 and then blasted off on a 16-0 run that put them up 11. Kentucky stretched the lead to 22, but senior forward Quincy Acy refused to let the Bears quit. Led by Acy's 22 points and eight rebounds, Baylor cut the lead to 10 with 49 seconds remaining but could get no closer. "I pulled back the reins a little bit trying to just get out of the gym," Calipari said. "Probably a mistake."
The Wildcats should grow more confident after the way they handled the Bears. Baylor is one of only a few teams in the nation that can match Kentucky's length and athleticism. Sunday, that didn't matter. Baylor coach Scott Drew, who lost to eventual national champion Duke in the Elite Eight in 2010, said these Wildcats play on an even higher level than that team. "When we lost to Duke, Duke was a very good team," Drew said, "but this Kentucky team is better."
Now, the Wildcats will have to prove they can block out distractions. They'll only have to spend a few days in Kentucky before flying south to New Orleans, so they should have limited exposure to the craziness in the Commonwealth. Still, the hype started the moment the buzzer sounded Sunday.
After he addressed the win and Davis' knee, Calipari fielded his share of Louisville questions, including one he's sure to get several times in the coming days. USA Today reporter Marlen Garcia asked Calipari about his relationship with Pitino. "It's fine," Calipari said. "We don't send each other Christmas cards, but if I see him in public and I'm recruiting, we'll spend some time." Looking for further clarification, Garcia asked if Calipari and Pitino considered themselves friends, acquaintances or something else. "Friendly acquaintances," Calipari cracked.
As Calipari fielded questions about the most important matchup in the history of a basketball-crazy state, his players fiddled with pieces of net in the locker room. They don't care who they play or what it means to the people in the state that most of the Wildcats are only passing through on the way to the NBA. They only want to beat "the next team" and move on to the national championship game.