No one said this was going to be easy.
OK, yes we did.
We all did.
As soon as No. 1 Kentucky dispatched of rival Louisville, we all dismissed the conference season as a pesky interruption in the Wildcats' pursuit of perfection. We searched in vain for potential hiccups and hangups for a team that seemed invincible.
And now, less than one week into the SEC season, here we are, with a team that looks a whole lot more vulnerable than invincible.
On Tuesday, Ole Miss nearly took out the Wildcats at Rupp Arena despite playing all of overtime with its hottest shooter, Stefan Moody, on the bench with cramps. On Saturday, Texas A&M pushed Kentucky to the edge of the brink of a 40-0 T-shirt bonfire even though its leading scorer, Jalen Jones, didn’t play the entire game, out with a high ankle sprain. The Wildcats survived 70-64 in double overtime.
Yes, the Cats are 2-0 in the league and 15-0 overall but the zeroes are hanging on by the slimmest of margins.
No doubt, SEC coaches are using all that "Kentucky undefeated" talk as a motivator. A&M coach Billy Kennedy said as much after his team’s loss:
"Totally. It was like a slap in the face. It was basically saying we shouldn't even show up."
So Kentucky is now facing teams bolstered by the combustible combo of nothing to lose and feeling slighted.
"It's not like we're not playing," Kentucky coach John Calipari said afterward. "What's happened is other teams are playing out of their minds. But guess what? Not changing."
No, it's not, because it hasn't changed in what, 40, 50 years?
When was the last time an opponent didn't play extra hard against Kentucky?
Or Duke? Or North Carolina? Or Kansas? Or UCLA?
Or Alabama in football? Or the Yankees? Or Serena Williams? Or Tiger Woods?
This isn't some new trend, nor is it one particular to the team that resides in Lexington, Kentucky.
Everyone wants to beat you? Hold on. Let’s find the violin symphony reserved for the team that has 815 McDonald's All-Americans and an average height between sycamore and redwood.
They just packed up after performing for the Crimson Tide football team in New Orleans.
No matter how fueled or offended the Aggies might have been, there's really no way they should have been able to force Kentucky into two overtimes, not without Jones, especially.
Unless the Cats let them.
Which is exactly what happened.
Who can beat Kentucky? Kentucky can beat Kentucky.
For two seasons running, the Cats have played not to the level of the competition but to the level of the brand. A year ago, they dithered from November until February, only to find a new gear when March rolled around.
This season, Kentucky played hard and tough and energized against Kansas and North Carolina and Louisville and disinterested and mopey and without energy against Buffalo, Ole Miss and now A&M.
Calipari looked like a madman on the sidelines, cajoling and cursing and gesticulating, all in an effort to find a spark, but in the end, the coach can only light it. The players have to keep it alive.
The Cats are fortunate they are good enough that they can still win, but let's be honest -- if a 9-5 A&M team without its best player can push them to two overtimes, their margin for error isn't that great.
Except they are supposed to be just that: great, one of the best ever assembled, the first that could go 40-0 and so forth.
But the great teams, the great players, don't care about anything but themselves. They are the best sort of narcissists, in love with the idea of being better than everyone, in love even more with beating the pants off everyone.
They don't care if their opponent is making half-court shots on one foot or if the worst free throw shooter is somehow perfect at the line. They don’t care where they are playing, who they are playing or if their socks match.
They are undefeated against bulletin-board material.
But right now, Kentucky isn't a great team.
Now put down the tomatoes, Big Blue Nation. No one is saying the Cats can’t be a great team; no one is saying that, when all is said and done, the Wildcats won't have put together a season for the ages and won the whole thing.
All of that is still very much in play.
But they aren't there yet, and they won't arrive there if they don't get over themselves.
Everyone said it was going to be easy.
Turns out everyone was wrong.
It's only as easy as the Cats decide to make it.