LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky basketball fans no doubt gasped, then rolled their eyes, when the Wildcats’ NCAA Tournament path was unveiled on Sunday evening. After steamrolling Arkansas in the SEC title game for its 11th consecutive victory, UK was rewarded with a No. 2 seed and a minefield of potential opponents.
Despite being the fifth overall seed in the NCAA field, the Wildcats might have to face Wichita State, UCLA and North Carolina — the nation’s Nos. 8, 18 and 3 teams in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings — in the second round, Sweet 16 and Elite Eight, respectively. There isn’t a more challenging potential path to the Final Four among bona fide contenders.
“Could you imagine a couple brackets tougher than ours?” Cats coach John Calipari said. “They call it murderer’s row, insane row. There’s teams along the way that you look at and you say, ‘Whew.’ ”
ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg had the same reaction. For starters, the Shockers are 30-4, a top-20 team in the AP poll and a top-10 squad in just about every computer ranking other than the RPI. But they’re a No. 10 seed in the NCAA Tournament and could be a major second-round problem for Kentucky.
“That bracket is tough,” Greenberg told SEC Country. “Wichita State is probably the seed I was most surprised with, just to look at their body of work. Not their wins against the field but just how they beat people and how they play: 10-deep, don’t give up second shots, keep up in transition, have an inside scorer, a shot-maker. Then UCLA is the best offensive team in the country.
“Now, North Carolina has some vulnerability because Justin Jackson (who scored 34 on UK in December) is not playing that well right now and if Joel Berry (23 points against the Cats) gets in foul trouble they’re a different team. But, I mean, this is a hard draw for Kentucky.”
The Bruins, a No. 3 seed, beat the Wildcats 97-92 in Rupp Arena on Dec. 3. The top-seeded Tar Heels, NCAA runners-up last season, lost a 103-100 shootout with UK on Dec. 17 in Las Vegas. Kentucky, UCLA and North Carolina have been No. 1, 2 and 3 in the AP poll at various times this season.
So … can the Cats survive this death march?
“I’m much more confident they can do it now than I was a month ago, for sure,” Greenberg said. “A month ago, I was really down on them. I didn’t think they were defending with a purpose. I didn’t think they were connected. My thing is: The season started and there was an enthusiasm, an energy, a passion. It was new. Then they got into the doldrums, the grind of January and February. But now these young kids can see the finish line. They know what they’re working towards.
“You see a renewed enthusiasm, energy, excitement, passion. They’re playing with a bounce. I think their light bulb has gone on.”
Greenberg is encouraged most by four things:
- Kentucky’s recent defensive surge
- Calipari settling on senior forward Derek Willis over freshman Wenyen Gabriel
- Point guard De’Aaron Fox returning to early season form
- Big man Bam Adebayo taking his game to a new level down the stretch.
“I think they’re buying in,” Greenberg said. “I think John backed off them a little bit — coached them really hard in practice and backed off in games —– and that’s been good.”
And here’s one more reason for Kentucky fans to hope: The two previous times Calipari teams drew what looked like an impossible path to the Final Four, they got there anyway.
In 2011 as a No. 4 seed, the Wildcats took down three consecutive top-20 KenPom teams: West Virginia (Final Four the year before), Ohio State (No. 1 overall seed) and North Carolina. In 2014 as a No. 8 seed, UK eliminated three consecutive top-11 KenPom teams: undefeated No. 1 seed Wichita State, defending national champion Louisville and NCAA runner-up Michigan. All three of those teams had been in the previous year’s Final Four.
Sure, this latest gauntlet looks daunting, but the Cats have seen (and conquered) harder.