In a crazy NCAA Tournament, Kentucky basketball will do something crazy on Sunday
If it is craziness you seek, the NCAA Tournament delivers.
Especially this year.
Thursday, there was 15th-seeded Princeton, coached by Mitch Henderson, who attended Tates Creek Middle School in Lexington, upsetting Pac-12 Tournament champ and No. 2 seed Arizona 59-55.
Friday, there was 16th-seeded Fairleigh Dickinson, coached by Tobin Anderson, whose wife Jodi Caliguiri Anderson graduated from Lafayette High School in Lexington, upsetting Big Ten Tournament champ and No. 1 seed Purdue 63-58.
“Can someone watch my dog?” Jodi Anderson asked on social media.
Which leads us to the week before the tournament. Kentucky had just suffered a disappointing loss to Vanderbilt in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament in Nashville. During the postgame press conference, UK Coach John Calipari said he needed to get his roller coaster of a team into the mindset of “Let’s go do something crazy.”
Friday night the Cats completed Step 1. Oscar Tshiebwe grabbed 25 rebounds. Antonio Reeves scored 22 points. As the No. 6 seed in the East Region, Kentucky held off No. 11 seed Providence 61-53 for the program’s first Big Dance victory since 2019.
Sunday presents Step 2. It’s a second-round War of the Wildcats for a 2:40 p.m. tipoff on CBS. The Kansas State Wildcats knocked off Montana State 77-65 in Friday night’s second game at Greensboro Coliseum. Coached by former longtime Baylor assistant coach Jerome Tang, the Manhattan Wildcats are 24-9. They are the region’s No. 3 seed.
What’s that you say? A No. 6 seed beating a No. 3 seed isn’t all that crazy. Certainly not in this NCAA Tournament. Happens all the time. And this is Kentucky, after all. Greatest Tradition in the History of College Basketball. National titles: eight. Big Blue Nation’s annual hoop dreams always extend beyond a mere Sweet 16 berth. To infinity and beyond.
This year is different. This is not your quintessential Kentucky basketball team. It lost 11 games. It lost four home games. It lost to South Carolina and Georgia, two of the SEC basketball’s bottom four this season. It lost to Vanderbilt twice in a span of 10 days. Every time we thought we knew this team, it showed us a different team. Sometimes that was good. Sometimes it wasn’t.
It was not that long ago when Kentucky fans worried if their beloved would even make the NCAA Tournament, much less win a pair of games to punch its ticket for a regional semifinal game in New York on Thursday night.
It could happen. It says here it will happen.
On paper, the difference between UK and K-State is razor thin. Kansas State is 23rd in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings. Kentucky is 24th. UK is 16th in offensive efficiency. Kansas State is 20th in defensive efficiency. Kansas State’s conference, the Big 12, was the nation’s best this season. Kentucky’s strength (offensive rebounding) is Kansas State’s weakness (defensive rebounding).
Two factors swing me UK’s way.
During a Friday night stretch when the Cats were playing well, the Coliseum erupted into chants of “Go Big Blue!” These weren’t fingers-crossed chants. Or you-can-do-it chants. These were the full-throated “We’re Kentucky and You’re Not” type of chants we had not heard at an NCAA Tournament game in a long time. There was just something about those chants.
Then there are the players themselves. You know, the most important factor. They were locked in. Tshiebwe carried the “Refuse to Lose” attitude he spoke of Thursday during UK’s media session onto the floor Friday. So did Jacob Toppin. And Antonio Reeves. And Cason Wallace. And Chris Livingston.
Kentucky played hard Friday night. About as hard as it can play. To be sure, the execution wasn’t always there. Calipari’s club will certainly have to shoot better than the 25 percent it shot in the second half against Providence to beat Kansas State. But the Cats played Friday like they wanted it, like they had to have it.
If Kentucky plays with that same effort and intensity Sunday, especially on the defensive end, it will find itself in Madison Square Garden come Thursday night.
How crazy is that?
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