John Clay: The smart money is on 'the dumb kids'

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 24, 2010 

SYRACUSE — Cornell wears the white hats.

Kentucky wears the black hats.

Or is it Cornell wears the thinking caps?

And Kentucky wears the dunce caps?

"It's the smart kids against the dumb kids, that's basically what they're saying," Kentucky's DeMarcus Cousins said.

Cornell's players play in the Ivy League, after all. Kentucky's players will soon be playing in the association, the National Basketball Association. Cornell is a No. 12 seed, the lowest of any of the 16 teams remaining in this NCAA Tournament. Its East Regional semifinal opponent, Kentucky, is not just the No. 1 seed in this region, but the popular choice to claim the big trophy.

"They're saying it's David vs. Goliath," said Patrick Patterson.

David gets the fan support. Every time. So everyone outside the Big Blue Nation is rooting for the Big Red. Cornell is the darling of the media. Cornell is the darling of the upset lovers. As the first Ivy League school to reach the Sweet 16 since 1979, Cornell is the darling of the brainiac set.

"I'm seeing Cornell all over ESPN," said Patterson, "playing basketball with a paper mache thing, doing Rubik's Cube, talking six different languages. The media is eating this up. The fans are eating this up."

Kentucky? The Cats aren't dumb. No team that is 34-2, that plays defense as well as UK does — "That takes discipline," UK Coach John Calipari said Wednesday — that gets along as well as UK does, lacks for basketball smarts.

Being the sport's all-time leader in victories doesn't automatically endear you to the outside world, however. When the Wildcats took the floor of the Carrier Dome for their open practice on Wednesday, the Big Blue was subjected to chants of "Let's Go Orange! Let's Go Orange!" from heckling Syracuse fans.

"We're not gonna get into that," said Cousins, wearing his smart-set glasses, shaking his head. "We're just going to play basketball."

If it's just basketball, Kentucky will be just fine on Thursday. Yes, Cornell is good. Yes, Cornell has shot 58.8 percent from the floor so far this tournament. Yes, Cornell took apart Temple and then Wisconsin in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament. But neither Temple nor even Wisconsin comes close to matching Kentucky in overall athletic ability.

All things being equal, the Cats' length, agility and speed will be too much for the Ivy Leaguers to handle, even if this is an Ivy League team that tackled a difficult non-conference schedule, playing Kansas in Allen Fieldhouse right down to the wire before losing.

"We should have won that game," Mark Coury, the former Cat who famously transferred to Cornell, told his old friends from the Kentucky media Wednesday.

"I think people would be happy if we won," said Cornell forward Alex Tyler, "but they're not expecting us to win."

Cornell could win. The NCAA Tournament doesn't go by the NBA Draft lottery. Northern Iowa wasn't supposed to shock Kansas. Ohio wasn't supposed to drub Georgetown. If you go by the selection committee seedings, Saint Mary's wasn't supposed to knock off Villanova. If the Big Red starts fast and hits big shots, "It's been a good season," said Calipari.

But just the fact that so many this week have been talking about Cornell, talking up Cornell, openly rooting for Cornell, shouldn't that play right into the hands, or black hats, of the Cats?

Can't Calipari spin that into another motivational morsel to push his team into the next round?

"That's how it's been all year, really," said the Cats' John Wall. "For some reason, they don't want Kentucky to win."

The kid in the smart-set glasses just shook his head.

"That's just stupid," said Cousins. "That doesn't have anything to do with basketball."

A pretty smart answer.

Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his Sidelines blog at Kentucky.com.

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