CON: It can make players too confident, inflate their egos. Being No. 1 is not easy. It’s the toughest place to be, in fact, from a competitive standpoint.
PRO: It brings pressure, but the pressure can be good or bad, depending on how the team reacts to it. It can get a team’s attention and sharpen its focus, particularly a team that isn’t being challenged every night by its competition.
I think the University of Kentucky needed this challenge. My colleague, Rick Bozich, was on target in his Sunday column that said UK’s greatest opponent now will be its runaway expectations.
I agree — mostly. I’d say it this way. UK’s greatest opponent is its runaway potential.
John Calipari predicted on his radio show with Tom Leach after Saturday’s win over Arkansas that fans can now expect people to start knocking UK’s schedule. “They’re going to say we haven’t beaten anybody. Don’t get mad.”
Yes, they’re going to say that. It isn’t the fault of scheduling. No schedule that includes Louisville, North Carolina and Connecticut in the non-conference portion lacks ambition. And the SEC, while not the assortment of cupcakes some would paint it out to be, isn’t the kind of grinder that you face in the ACC, Big Ten or Big East. It just isn’t.
But none of that has any bearing on how good UK is, or how good it could be. Like a golfer who is far above his competition, UK is now playing against the course. The Wildcats should be less concerned with the ranking than with improving.
And if the way UK played on Saturday with its sights set on No. 1 is anything like the way the Wildcats will keep playing to hold onto it, then being No. 1 will be a good thing for this team.
In fact, I said that this is a challenge this team needed. More than Calipari ripping them, more than pundits doubting them, the power and motivation of that No. 1 ranking could be something that propels this team forward.
The worry that it won’t have faced as fierce a threat as it will begin to get in the NCAA Tournament is a legitimate one. I still have major questions over how this team will react to a talented, smart opponent that is executing well enough to put major pressure on the Wildcats. The NCAA Tournament is not a comfortable place to be answering that question for the first time.
Then again, there may not be many teams out there who can get UK into that situation, if these talented Wildcats take this No. 1 ranking and run with it.