Mark Story: Formidable foes loom in UK's road to the Final Four

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 14, 2011 

For the Kentucky Wildcats, it is not a road to the Final Four. It is an obstacle course.

The surging Cats, winners of eight of their past nine games, did not get any favors from the NCAA Tournament selection committee. To end UK's 12-year Final Four drought, the Cats will have to survive a brutal East Region that includes tournament overall No. 1 seed Ohio State and red-hot North Carolina.

A No. 4 seed, UK will begin NCAA Tournament play against the No. 13-seeded Princeton Tigers on Thursday in Tampa, Fla.

If the Cats are to mount a viable quest for UK's 14th Final Four trip, here is the potentially rigorous journey they will have to navigate.

Step One: Princeton

The Ivy League champions (25-6) are in the field of 68 thanks to a Douglas Davis buzzer-beater that defeated Harvard in a one-game playoff that decided the brainiac conference's NCAA tourney entry.

Princeton stands No. 40 in the RealTimeRPI.com rankings. Against major-conference foes, the Tigers beat Big East also-ran Rutgers (78-73) in overtime but were waxed (97-60) at Duke.

Long known for the disciplined half-court offense that Coach Pete Carril popularized when he was working the Princeton sidelines (1967-96), the Tigers average 69.6 points a game while shooting almost 37 percent from three-point range.

This is the kind of foe UK does not want to let "hang around" deep into the game.

Step Two: West Virginia?

If the Cats survive, then a rematch against the team that ended their season a year ago could be the reward. A No. 5 seed, West Virginia (20-11) will face the winner of UAB-Clemson in its tourney opener.

If WVU advances, Mountaineers Coach Bob Huggins will have another chance to extend his mastery over John Calipari. In head-to-head meetings, Huggy Bear is 8-1 against Cal. Far and away the most meaningful of those eight was last season's 73-66 upset of John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Co. in the NCAA East Region finals.

With do-everything star Da'Sean Butler gone from that team, West Virginia is not nearly as threatening. However, WVU does have rugged frontline players Kevin Jones and John Flowers plus Cat-killer Joe Mazzulla in the backcourt.

One would think the Cats ability to shoot with accuracy from the perimeter at three, even four, positions would make Kentucky far less susceptible to the 1-3-1 zone that Huggins used with such great effect against the Wildcats a season ago.

Step Three: Ohio State?

If it happens, a meeting between the top-seeded Buckeyes and No. 4 Cats would be, in some ways, a battle between mirror images.

Ohio State essentially relies on a six-man playing rotation.

Kentucky essentially relies on a six-man playing rotation.

Ohio State's primary point guard (Aaron Craft) and low-post scoring threat (Jared Sullinger) are freshmen.

Kentucky's primary point guard (Brandon Knight) and low-post scoring threat (Terrence Jones) are freshmen.

For most of the season, the edge Ohio State would have had over Kentucky is that its veteran supporting players — William Buford, Jon Diebler, David Lighty — were playing at a far higher level than UK's.

Is that still true? With the emergence of Darius Miller late in the season and the way Josh Harrellson and DeAndre Liggins played in the SEC Tournament, UK mighty have closed that gap.

If Kentucky-Ohio State happens, it could be a whale of a game.

Step Four: North Carolina?

Should Kentucky oust the Buckeyes, it could mean a matchup with ancient rival North Carolina for the Final Four. Old-time UK fans might shudder at that, given that the Tar Heels have beaten the Cats in the round of eight twice, in 1977 and in 1995.

In December, Kentucky went to Chapel Hill and led for most of the game before a late North Carolina rally resulted in a 75-73 Tar Heels victory.

Since then, point guard Larry Drew quit the Carolina team, and Roy Williams has turned over the show to freshman Dexter Strickland. With Strickland getting the ball where it needs to go (especially to Harrison Barnes), the Heels have won 14 of their past 16. Their only two losses in the stretch came at Duke and to Duke in the ACC Tournament finals.

Having to beat Ohio State and North Carolina to make the Final Four would be an arduous task.

Then again, the road to a promised land should be challenging.

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