First impressions won't mean anything when the ball goes up in the East Regional Thursday night, but it seemed to me that the Kentucky Wildcats arrived in Syracuse with a chip on their collective shoulders. This is a team that is fawned over as much, if not more, than any other school in America by its adoring fan base (see: Judd, Ashley), but all of a sudden, it's Ivy League champion Cornell that is attracting the lion's share of attention for making the Sweet 16.
The contrast during today's press conferences was striking. Cornell seniors Louis Dale, Jeff Foote and Ryan Wittman worked at trying to satisfy the curiosity about their team of non-scholarship players for the media while also sharing private jokes on the podium. Coach Steve Donahue politely declined to discuss his future job prospects because he didn't want to take the focus of his players and, he said, because he wants to enjoy the experience with them for as long as it lasts.
"I have a sense that the group isn't done," Donahue said. "That's what we're going to try to do is just keep advancing."
When it was Kentucky's turn, all five starters came in laughing and joking with each other and then sat down at the table and generally affected a disinterested attitude with the exception of freshman sensation JohnWall, whose rapid-fire answers suggest he's heard all the basic questions and has his answers down pat. They spoke respectfully of Cornell's ability but didn't really attempt to engage in any light-hearted banter comparing the two schools or to offer any introspection whatsoever.
For instance, here's DeMarcus Cousins on his matchup with 7-foot Cornell center Jeff Foote: "He's a big body. I mean, I really haven't had a chance to go against a lot of 7-footers this year. This should be a good matchup in the game."
Does it mean Kentucky is taking Cornell lightly? I don't think so. I think it means the Wildcats know that, despite the number of fans who traveled from Kentucky to Syracuse, most of America will be rooting for the Ivy League underdogs, and they would like to flaunt the difference in talent.
"They know how good this team is," Kentucky coach John Calipari said of Cornell. "This is the information age, where kids know about other kids. Eric Bledsoe played against [Cornell guard Louis] Dale. I didn't know that, but they were talking about it. 'He's really good. I played against him.' The information age and being able to have 150 TV channels and every game on TV, they see everything. They watched the Kansas-Cornell game [when the No. 1 Jayhawks came from behind to win by five at home]. They were like, 'Oh, my God. This team is going to beat them. How good is this team?'
"So, they know. This is a team, if we don't play, you get beat. If they play harder than you play, you go home."
The Wildcats didn't come here to praise Cornell; they came to hush all the gushing about the gutty Big Red and turn the spotlight back on themselves.