The pressure isn't "off," because that's not possible. Not when one 40-minute basketball game decides friendships, splits families and is the main talking point of an entire state for 365 days a year.
A lower level of pressure is one thing, but off? Never.
* * *
Whenever an outsider asks me to try and explain the significance of basketball in the state of Kentucky, there's always one story that pops into my head before any other gets there.
I was working at a law firm downtown in 2009, and on this particular day I was watching the front desk while the receptionist took a break. A family of three -- a mother, a father and a young boy -- were waiting to meet with one of the attorneys.
After 30 seconds or so of silence, the mother, in as stereotypical a Southern drawl as you can imagine, spoke up.
"How do y'all like your new player?"
I had never met this woman, nor had I met either of the family members she was sitting next to. I was wearing khaki pants and a button-down shirt, nothing which would give away anything about who I am or what I enjoy. She was wearing jeans and a blouse, and the same thing held true for her. Given the circumstances, it was about as insane an opening line as you could ever deliver to a stranger.
Except I knew exactly what and who she was talking about.
Justice, who would go on to win a state title at Shelby Valley and be named Kentucky's Mr. Basketball later that year, had committed to walk-on at Louisville a week earlier. The woman explained that she and her family were from Pikeville and that they had watched Justice play since he was a little boy. We talked basketball for a good five minutes before the family was finally called back for their meeting.
As she began to walk away, the woman had one last thing she had to get out.
"We'll be rooting for y'all and Elisha now, you know, except for on that day."
There is nowhere else in the world where this happens. This woman had no idea that I was a Louisville fan or that I even knew the slightest thing about basketball, and yet she was still confident enough in the likelihood of both facts that she deemed it appropriate to ask just about the most vague question possible to a complete stranger. And naturally, her confidence was validated.
This is Kentucky. This is the place where, unless otherwise specified, every single conversation about sports is assumed to be centered around either U of L basketball or UK basketball...or both, of course. Only it's typically not nearly as pleasant as that 2009 exchange.
* * *
It has been nearly nine months to the day.
John Calipari's sixth win over Louisville since his arrival in Lexington left the deepest bruise on the psyche of Cardinal fans to date. Even now, you don't have to look too closely to see its remains.
A Sweet 16 meeting against the Wildcats was supposed to be U of L's chance to get the series -- one which had been dominated by Kentucky since the arrival on Calipari -- back in the vicinity of level ground. It was also a chance to put the rivalry at the forefront of the sport, where it should be. After all, these are two teams that have combined for four Final Four appearances, three title game appearances and two national championships over the past three seasons. Two programs that are dominating a sport and hating one another in perpetuity is supposed to be a recipe for unrivaled attention, but Louisville's inability to get the better of their adversaries continued to be the one thing holding the storyline back, as UK marched on in the direction of the Final Four.
If U of L holds on to win that game, then the Cards are one win away from their third straight Final Four and three away from back-to-back national titles. They also end a Kentucky season that began with a No. 1 ranking, and which would have culminated with an 8 seed bowing out in the Sweet 16. The constant Internet chest-thumping, the 40-0 talk, the "L1C6" hashtag; one decent five-minute stretch eliminates all of that.
Of course the game itself would have been enough to leave a bruise regardless of the name of the team doing the hitting.
The Cards controlled the first 35 minutes in a way that made you feel, even when things were obviously crumbling near the end, like they couldn't possibly let it slip away completely. That unfounded conviction made the gut-punch that much more difficult to absorb when the final horn sounded and reality set in.The missed free-throws, the late turnovers, the offensive rebounds, the inexplicably leaving Aaron Harrison all alone in the corner; suddenly the players were walking off the court, and there was no longer time to wash any of that away. There was no time to correct mistakes, no time to get better ... no time to steal bragging rights back.
* * *
These last four years or so have been among the most successful and the most fun that any of us have ever experienced. In a strange way, that explains why March 28, 2014 was so painful.
It started with the Preston Knowles team that nearly overachieved its way to a Big East championship, moved on to the miracle run of March 2012, rolled into Louisville's first national title in 27 years, and continued with a Russ Smith-led team that again breached the 30-win mark and could have easily made it back to the sport's final weekend again.
The fun has been as much about the "small stuff" as it has the on-court success. The fan memes, the lovability of guys like Peyton Siva, Gorgui Dieng and Russ Smith, the rags-to-riches story of Luke Hancock (who's also lovable, by the way) and the evolution of the man at the head of the Cardinal program. It's all been very special to experience and to be a part of.
Through this stretch of overwhelming positive, there has been just one consistent negative, and I don't think I need to spell out what that is.
For whatever reason, everything changes when Kentucky is thrown into the equation. The coach talks differently, the players play differently, and the fans cheer differently. It's not a good different either, as recent history has proven.
Whatever this infection is, I don't think there's any question that it's spreading. For evidence, all you have to do is look at the last seven weeks.
Louisville is 11-0 for just the fifth time in program history. The Cardinals are one of eight remaining unbeaten teams in Division-I, and they're currently ranked No. 4 in both major polls. Ninety-nine point nine percent of the basketball-playing college programs in the country would cut themselves for such a resume, but it's been impossible to ignore that the mood surrounding U of L hoops since mid-November has been ... shall we say, less than overwhelmingly positive?
I'm not saying that this has everything to do with Kentucky, but I'm absolutely saying that it has a lot to do with Kentucky.
Teams outside of this insane world compare themselves to the rest of the country. Louisville and Kentucky compare themselves to one another, especially when one side has been getting the better of the other. There's no other way for Cardinal fans to justify spending so much time harping on the negative while cheering for a team with an unblemished record. Sure, the ultimate goal is always a national title, but when you hear a U of L fan say in November that a certain facet of their team's game needs to get better, you may as well just add "before the UK game" on to the end of that sentence.
There are always two seasons in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, and the first one ends today.
* * *
Ordinarily, an undefeated No. 1 team going on the road and blowing out an undefeated No. 4 team on its home court would be enough to make the sports world let out a collective gasp. But this Kentucky team is not ordinary, or at least they haven't been so far. The Wildcats posting an outrageous score against their well-regarded arch-rivals might surprise a majority of the viewing public, but it would be hard for Calipari's team to do anything that would produce shock (at least of the positive variety) at this point.
Louisville knows all this, of course, and maybe it's exactly what the Cardinals need.
The last time U of L was an underdog, Peyton Siva was running the point in a regular season conference game against Syracuse. Since then, the Cards have played in 59 straight games where at least a majority of the people paying attention expected them to win.
Suddenly, that's all gone. Now, not only are these guys supposed to lose, but they are supposed to lose handily. Change doesn't guarantee a solution when you're having a difficult time figuring something out, but a lack of change does guarantee that the problem isn't going anywhere.
Maybe this new mindset, this new climate, is what Louisville needs to finally make right the one major wrong of this current golden era. Or maybe the Cards are already too far gone in their minds to have any hope of breaking new ground against their rivals. Or maybe the experts who believe this Kentucky squad is going to wind up being one of the best college basketball teams of all-time are all right, and none of this even matters.
The good news is that it can't be any worse than it was nine months ago. The better news is that it could be so much better than any win the Cardinals have notched over their arch-rivals in more than a decade. The best news is that we only have to wait a few more hours before everything is finally revealed.