Well, well, well.
The idea that a Cat has nine lives has taken on literal and figurative meaning for Kentucky basketball in the span of a week.
By Matt Zemek
The Wildcats will face a No. 9 seed in the Sweet 16, but beyond that “ninth” portal to the Final Four, they have watched the rest of the South Region crumble.
It is true that even if Kentucky had faced top-seeded Virginia in Atlanta — which will be “Catlanta” with all the UK fans in attendance — the Wildcats would have rightly been seen as slight favorites against the Cavaliers. De’Andre Hunter did not produce eye-popping stats, but if you ask anyone close to the UVA program, they would have told you how important Hunter was to the larger operation. They would have explained how well Hunter created his own shot — in ways other Cavaliers couldn’t match. They would have detailed how his defensive acumen and physical attributes gave Virginia strengths which — without him — simply did not exist. Kentucky was in great position to beat Virginia before the NCAA Tournament Round of 64 even began. That is merely one part of the remarkable events which have swept through college basketball and Big Blue Nation the past week.
Why do these Kentucky Wildcats (to be distinguished from the Kansas State Wildcats) have nine lives? It’s not just the 9 seed in their bracket; it’s the fact that Kentucky didn’t have to play Arizona in Boise. It’s that Kentucky won’t have to play Tennessee a fourth time. It’s that Kentucky won’t have to worry about the second-seeded Cincinnati Bearcats.
Kentucky will enter the Sweet 16 as the highest seed in its region. Huh.
That sounds so familiar. It is what Kentucky fans normally expect from a John Calipari team in November. It is exactly what happened in 2010, 2012, and 2015.
When the Hunter news came down at Virginia, Kentucky gained a small shred of hope, but Arizona (Round of 32) and the other half of the South bracket (Elite Eight) still stood in the way as towering obstacles for this team on the path to San Antonio.
Now? The biggest obstacle to Big Blue lies within.
This is Kentucky’s regional to lose, especially since none of the other three fan bases will bring a remotely comparable amount of fans. Kentucky gets to play home games against a 9 and then a 7 (Nevada) or 11 (Loyola-Chicago) for the right to play a national semifinal on Saturday, March 31 in the Alamo City.
It’s good to be the Cats again.
The challenge — completely unforeseen and unexpected a week ago, and totally removed from the flow of this season and its plot twists — is to handle the role of being the favorite. That might be Calipari’s biggest adjustment, even though UK was obviously the favorite against Buffalo after the Bulls did UK a solid against Arizona.
Against Buffalo, Kentucky didn’t have much time to think about its situation. It also faced a Buffalo team which maxed out against Arizona and therefore faced the challenge of having to play two great games in a row in Boise, which was a big ask for the MAC champions. Now, as the scene shifts to the Sweet 16 and a different venue, Kentucky players will hear for four days how good they are and how San Antonio is so close to becoming an actual plane flight and a real destination. The NCAA Tournament requires six victories to lift a trophy, but it is comprised of three two-game tournaments at different sites. Each site carries its own snares and traps. Kentucky must block out the noise about “a clear path to Monday night” and prepare to work even harder to reach its goal.
Loyola or Nevada have shown profound levels of resilience in this tournament, so they are not to be dismissed, but in order to face one of those two teams on Saturday, Kentucky must first get past Kansas State on Thursday. In the Sweet 16, an all-Wildcat battle figures to give UK its tougher test before San Antonio.
The big point to realize about Kansas State is that while it didn’t play well at all against UMBC on Sunday, it survived without star big man Dean Wade, who can handle the banging in the paint but is a more-than-adept long-range shooter who can stretch the floor and make KSU’s offense more dynamic. If Wade is able to not only play, but play reasonably well, Kansas State will own enough balance to supplement its consistently rugged defense. This is not an easy game for Kentucky if Wade demonstrates competence at both ends of the floor and can give KSU coach Bruce Weber at least 25 solid minutes. Kentucky should expect a slugfest akin to what it faced last year against Wichita State in the Round of 32. One can easily see KSU dragging Kentucky into a street fight.
These young players — who performed very admirably in Boise but did not meet the level of physical resistance Kansas State will provide — have to be mentally ready to endure a sometimes-frustrating game. Beyond that, Kentucky’s freshmen have to be ready to understand how the game is officiated in the first half, such that they can learn how to bang with the Purple Wildcats of the Big 12 without picking up cheap fouls. Understanding officiating is not easy for fans or coaches, so players face a tough task. Yet, that’s what UK must do in order to remain in position to take care of business.
It is true that Calipari will pound home these themes the next few days. No one has to worry about whether the coach will send the right message. The frailty of this week, specifically the Sweet 16, is that the change in venue, circumstances, and overall optimism about Kentucky’s Final Four chances will affect this team’s ability to focus on the task at hand.
Yes, Kentucky’s road to the Final Four has become far easier than anyone ever could have imagined before the brackets were revealed on Selection Sunday. Yet, within that statement lies a subtle but profound paradox: Having a comparatively easier road in no way means the journey won’t still be difficult. Kentucky, now in the role of favorite, must work even harder and with more clarity and determination to make this ninth life as valuable as everyone in college basketball thinks it will be.
Harder than hard work is the only thing which will make this coming week relatively easy. Nothing else. That is the wisdom Kentucky will try to attain and keep in Catlanta.