Boogie Fland on fan backlash following Kentucky's loss to Oakland: "Their reaction was the right reaction."

On3 imageby:Jack Pilgrim04/01/24

Now is typically the time fans transition their excitement from the current season to the next — Final Four teams get an extra week to gloat and soak in being among the national semifinalists still standing. Everyone else is now in stay/go territory and portal watch while keeping an eye on prestigious events such as the McDonald’s All-American Game for a preview of what’s to come in 2024-25.

The latter is typically Kentucky’s time to shine, celebrating the next crop of incoming talent for John Calipari as the last prepares for the NBA Draft. This time around, though, things are a bit tricky. The Wildcats are bringing in a trio of Burger Boys in Jayden Quaintance, Boogie Fland and Karter Knox, among three other high-profile pledges in Billy Richmond, Somto Cyril and Travis Perry.

Fans want to be excited about next year, but they’re having trouble getting there considering the massive letdown better known as March Sadness in Lexington. One-and-done exits in the SEC and NCAA Tournaments with one-and-done talent, nothing to show for one of the most entertaining seasons in recent memory. The heartbreak was and continues to be real for Big Blue Nation, especially considering No. 11 seed NC State — with former UK assistant Joel Justus on the bench, mind you — has come out of the South Region where Kentucky could and maybe should have been.

The recruits’ reaction? Emotions were justified following the loss. That’s to be expected at a place that demands excellence year in and year out with no exceptions. They expect to feel the same way next season when they arrive on campus — how it should be.

“Kentucky fans, they want to win, you know? That’s what they’re used to,” Fland said at McDAAG Media Day on Monday. “I feel like their reaction was the right reaction. They came up short. They thought they had another game. It’s March, you’re gonna get everybody’s best shot.”

The weight of no second weekends since 2019 and no Final Fours since 2015 is on the program’s shoulders — John Calipari’s, to be specific. And you’d expect that pressure to fall on the players, too, considering they’re the ones coming up with the buckets and stops.

Thing is, they embrace all of it. That’s why they signed with Kentucky and took on this challenge to begin with. They could have gone elsewhere if they didn’t feel they were ready to handle being placed under a microscope with the entire basketball world watching.

Pressure bursts pipes or creates diamonds. And these kids like to shine.

“I don’t feel like there’s no pressure,” Fland added. “I feel like we chose Kentucky because we knew what it came with. You’ve just got to go there and do what you got to do. … I spoke with (Coach Cal), said not to worry about that. I’m pretty sure he knows that I know that. We go there because of that, you know? Without pressure there’s not really privilege. That’s how I look at it.”

“Last year, they didn’t do too well in the first round, but next year is going to be a whole different year,” Knox added. “We’re going to get past the first round and hopefully win the national championship. … I’m not going to be the only one that brings us back, I’ve got (my freshmen teammates), some people coming back, we’re going to get together and build team chemistry. We’re going to go further.”

That’s what playing in events like the McDonald’s All-American Game is for, competing against the best of the best to prove you belong. This is the talent they’ll be facing throughout the season as freshmen, so it’s an early test to see who separates from the pack.

“I mean, you’re playing against guys that you’re going to be playing against in SEC play, nonconference play in general. It’s preparation for that next level, bigger and stronger guys, making the right plays,” Fland said.

“This is definitely a great way to kind of prepare for the next stage coming,” Jayden Quaintance added. “All these guys are going DI, playing at the same level I’m at, so it’s good to start there early. You get to see all of the players we’re going to see next year.”

Do they feel the spotlight as Kentucky kids participating in the event, knowing what’s to come in Lexington later this year? Maybe, but it’s a feeling they enjoy, one they have no choice but to embrace going into a season unlike any other under Coach Cal.

They want to be in the eye of the storm.

“Like I was saying before about pressure, I mean, this is what you sign up for. You sign up for the pressure, you sign up for everything that comes with it,” Fland said. “And you’ve got to look at it as a privilege to be in this position, to be with all of these top players, to have all this media. You’ve just got to embrace it and you keep going with it.”

“I’m just trying to kind of embrace the stage, kind of show off what I can do,” Quaintance added. “I don’t think it’s any pressure. It’s just another big opportunity.”

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