PHILADELPHIA -- Unrealistic expectations about its beloved basketball team grow like the bluegrass along the rolling hills of Kentucky. They are passed from one generation of fans to another like some family heirloom.
But when the Wildcats were placed on NCAA probation three years ago and put out of postseason competition until this year, the expectations became a little more reasonable, the goals a little more realistic.
"I think most of the fans -- not all them -- just wanted us to get back in the NCAA tournament," Kentucky coach Rick Pitino said earlier this week. "They expected it would take us four to five years to get the program back to where it was."
It has, of course, happened a lot faster. From a more-than-respectable 14-14 in Pitino's first season, to an impressive 22-6 last season, the Wildcats are 29-6 this season, one game away from going back to the Final Four for the first time since 1984.
Though few outside the state expect second-seeded Kentucky to beat top-ranked, top-seeded, defending champion Duke (31-2) in tonight's 7 p.m. NCAA East Regional final at the Spectrum, it is not outside the realm of possibility.
"In college basketball, the best team doesn't always win," said Pitino, pointing out North Carolina State's upset of heavily favored Houston in the 1983 NCAA final at Albuquerque, N.M., and Villanova's win over Georgetown in the 1985 final in Lexington, Ky.
The Wildcats are far from the best team of the eight remaining . With the exception of 6-foot-8, 240-pound sophomore Jamal Mashburn, they don't have much size. With the exception of Mashburn and senior point guard Sean Woods, they don't have much quickness. With the exception of Mashburn, they are mostly blue-collar types in a game dominated by blue-chip talent.
Yet they are a lot better off than when Pitino arrived.
"When coach got here, nobody stood over 6-7, there was nobody with any bulk, nobody who could jump," said senior forward John Pelphrey, a rail-thin 6-7 forward. "If you told us then that we'd be in the final eight now, I don't think anybody would have believed you."
Whatever talent Kentucky had before the NCAA began its investigation departed shortly thereafter, or never got there in the first place. Rex Chapman went to the NBA. LeRon Ellis went to Syracuse. Incoming freshman Chris Mills, the player around whom most of the controversy hovered with the infamous air-freight package filled with money, left for Arizona. Eric Manuel, a Proposition 48 case that season, was ruled ineligible by the NCAA.
That left Pitino with four players: Pelphrey, Woods, Richie Farmer and Deron Feldhaus. All but Woods were in-state players, and though Farmer and Pelphrey were former Mr. Basketballs as high school seniors, they had been forced upon Pitino's predecessor, Eddie Sutton.
Asked what options he had when the probation was handed down, Pelphrey said yesterday: "Well I guess I could have gone home. But no other Division I program wanted me to play basketball for them."
Said Pitino: "It was more like a Tuesday night-Friday night bar softball team, without the drinking. But they did like to eat."
Pitino, who had left coaching the New York Knicks for Kentucky, came in without preconceived notions. But he did bring a strict conditioning program and a full-court style of play that had worked successfully at Providence, where he led a similar bunch of overachievers to the 1987 Final Four.
"I wasn't concerned with a timetable," said Pitino, who could become the 10th coach to take two different schools to the Final Four. "The only time I was concerned with a timetable was when I was coaching the Knicks, when the hour glass is turned over the moment you sign the contract. I've learned that you have to take 10 steps back into order to take two steps forward. You've got to show patience."
But even Pitino admits that the timetable was pushed forward with the arrival and maturation of Mashburn, a gifted player from the Bronx. After a promising, but erratic, freshman year, Mashburn has blossomed into the team's leading scorer and rebounder this season. He had 30 points in Kentucky's 87-77 win over Massachusetts on Thursday night.
Pitino's identification as, in Mashburn's words, "the Knicks coach," led to his decision to come to Kentucky. And Pitino's ability to get his players to sacrifice their time, not to mention their bodies, has led the Wildcats to unimagined heights.
"They have made themselves into outstanding basketball players," said Pitino, 39. "Today these four guys [the seniors] could play for any team in the country and two of them could be drafted by the NBA."
There is also a touch of coincidence to tonight's game. As freshmen, the four Kentucky seniors played their first game against Duke, losing by 25 points in the Tip-Off Classic in Springfield, Mass.
"We got the fire beat out of us," said Farmer. "They were a great team then and they're a great team now. Hopefully, we'll be more competitive against them this time."
If the Wildcats can throw down some three-pointers early, if their full-court press can work even a little, Kentucky might give the Blue Devils a run. If not, Duke will be headed to Minneapolis for its fifth straight Final Four.
And the Wildcats will be going back to Lexington, where many undoubtedly will appreciate how far they've come. But there will be some impassioned Kentucky fans who cheered the Baron, Adolph Rupp, and booed Joe B. Hall, and who this time will somehow feel a bit let down.
It is, after all, Kentucky, where unrealistic expectations grow like the bluegrass.