There are two emotions that can come with winning a championship – joy or relief. Teams that are expected to win celebrate their victory with a sense of relief to have lived up to expectation; teams that are the underdog show unbridled joy in their win, free of the expectation.
In the 2011-2012 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship, Kentucky was the unquestionable favorite; for the Wildcats, anything but a win would have been failure. In fact, their coach John Calipari said, “At Kentucky, we don’t hang up banners for conference championships.” The writing between the lines is clear – at Kentucky, anything less than a national championship is a failure.
In this game, Kansas was the clear underdog, with no one expecting them to make the championship. If not for the injury to Kendall Marshall, everyone expected North Carolina to be in the championship against Kentucky. So despite it being a game between the two winningest programs in NCAA basketball history, everyone expected the outcome to be as it was.
Kentucky was the best team in the nation, by far. With as many as six players who could go in the first round of the 2012 NBA draft, it would have been hard for any team to compete with the Kentucky thoroughbreds. Led by Anthony Davis, just the second freshman to be named player of the year (the other being Kevin Durant) and the consensus number one pick in the draft, Kentucky was a team that, on paper, might look like the Miami Heat – lots of talent, with some difficulty working together. But the Wildcats won this national championship not because of diva offense, but incredible defense and uncommon selfishness. And as much as many hate to admit it, it is the work of the much-maligned Calipari – he took a team of six great players and got them to put aside their egos for the better of the team.
The best team in the nation with the best players; of course Kentucky was going to win, right? It seems simple, but we know from years of watching March Madness that this isn’t always the case in college basketball. For instance, last year UConn and Butler played for the championship – were they the two best teams in the country? No. It takes winning six do-or-die games in a row, under extreme pressure, to win a national championship. A lot of things can muck that up, from bad shooting to key injuries. So it takes talent, and a little luck, to win the NCAA basketball title.
Kentucky had a dominant interior defense; a balanced and efficient offense and the most talented collection of players on the same the team that we’ve seen in years – maybe ever. So on Monday night, the Wildcats expected to win; they knew they were the better team, and they performed like it. They were so good that they won despite Davis only scoring six points. And you could see the relief on the players’ and coach’s faces when they celebrated – the relief of living up to expectations.