Imagine all the combinations of teams Kentucky could have received in an NCAA Tournament bracket.
By Matt Zemek
After it lost the SEC Tournament semifinals to Tennessee, and then after Michigan State won the Big Ten Tournament, it became apparent that Kentucky was likely to settle for a No. 2 seed. Competition was fierce for the No. 1 seeds, and other teams made better closing arguments. The question became whether Kentucky, as a 2 seed, would stay home in the South Region and the Louisville regional or be shipped to another region. Being able to play in Louisville would have given UK a notable advantage — maybe not a huge one, but something big enough for everyone else to notice.
Not getting that Louisville placement could reasonably be viewed as a disappointment. Had Kentucky beaten Tennessee, the Wildcats might be in the South Region today.
Yet, if one thing matters more than regional placement and the length of a commute for fans, it’s the quality of the bracket. Fans want to be able to easily travel to games, yes, but they want a Final Four and a shot at the national championship most of all. If Kentucky was going to get sent out of the South Region, would the quality of the bracket compensate for that snub?
The answer after Selection Sunday is clearly YES.
After the 2-15 first-round game against Abilene Christian, Kentucky could gain a revenge game against Seton Hall, which would be a delicious prospect since UK has evolved so much since that meeting in Madison Square Garden. Maybe Kentucky would play Wofford. That wouldn’t be a piece of cake, but Kentucky has more and better athletes than the Terriers do. Wofford has never won an NCAA Tournament game. There are more dangerous No. 7 seeds in this bracket, such as Cincinnati and Louisville.
In the Sweet 16, assuming UK gets that far, the highest-seeded opponent is Houston, a very tough and flinty team… but ultimately a team which tries to do a lot of the same things Kentucky does. Kentucky appears to be a better version of Houston. Defense, size, length, shot-blocking prowess, rebounding excellence — Houston is good, Kentucky is better.
The most dangerous opponent for Kentucky before the Elite 8 could be Iowa State. The Cyclones are an erratic team, one which finished 9-9 in the Big 12 and got crushed by West Virginia late in the regular season. Iowa State has generally hit a ceiling in the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament, so Kentucky would figure to power its way past the Cyclones if they met at this tournament, but in a one-shot situation, ISU’s capacity to shoot the three makes Steve Prohm’s team very dangerous. Iowa State can shoot Kentucky out of the tournament. None of Big Blue’s other potential opponents before the Elite 8 are likely to do that. Kentucky knows Seton Hall’s Myles Powell can become unconscious — the Wildcats experienced his skill up-close and personal — so I doubt that Powell would be able to bust loose in a possible rematch.
Then, in the regional final, Kentucky — should it get there — would probably play North Carolina. You saw the Cats hammer the Tar Heels in Chicago in December. They dominated the boards and pushed around the Tar Heels. With Reid Travis back in the lineup for Kentucky, John Calipari would not face a complicated task in preparing his team for the Tar Heels. The same effort and hunger shown in Chicago would be likely to win the rematch, if it occurs.
How favorable was this bracket for Kentucky? The Wildcats don’t have to go through Duke or Michigan State or Gonzaga to make the Final Four. Heck, they don’t have to go through any of those teams in a possible national semifinal, either. If Kansas upsets North Carolina, Kentucky has already beaten Kansas as well this season. UK is 1-0 against both KU and UNC.
What if the Elite 8 opponent is Auburn? Kentucky is 2-0 against the Tigers. UK is therefore 4-0 combined against the 1, 4 and 5 seeds in the Midwest Region. The Cats wouldn’t have to deal with Duke, Tom Izzo, or Gonzaga until the national championship game.
Are you upset Kentucky didn’t get the Louisville site? Kentucky certainly received a great consolation prize in exchange for being booted out of the South Region at the 2019 NCAA Tournament.
Time for Cal’s crew to take full advantage and make the program’s first Final Four since 2015.