Mark Story: Kentucky's South Regional spiced with savory story lines

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 11, 2012 

For Kentucky to claim its eighth men's basketball national championship in 2012, John Calipari and the Wildcats could face a who's who of ghosts from UK's NCAA Tournament past.

The Cats will start NCAA Tourney play Thursday in Louisville as the No. 1 overall seed. If they are going to end up No. 1 the Wildcats could have to go back to the future against a run of schools that have been a part of some of the most compelling moments in UK's regal basketball history.

Story line one: Familiar faces.

In its initial game in the KFC Yum Center, Kentucky will face the winner of Tuesday's First Four matchup between Western Kentucky University and Mississippi Valley State.

For the Wildcats, that will mean either a game against WKU, which once embarrassed UK (107-83 in 1971) in the NCAA Tournament. Or it will be a meeting against a Delta Devils team coached by former Kentucky point guard Sean Woods.

Western (15-18) won its way into the Dance in the Sun Belt Tournament with a roster stocked with freshmen. Woods' MVSU squad is a battle-tested crew heavy on seniors.

As we all know, since the NCAA tourney field expanded to at least 64 teams in 1985, no No. 16 seed has ever beaten a No. 1.

Story line two. An NBA preview?

If UK wins, it will face either defending national champion Connecticut or Iowa State.

You can't sleep on the Cyclones. Coach Fred Hoiberg's team is built around transfers, with big man Royce White (Minnesota) and perimeter players Scott Christopherson (Marquette), Chris Allen (Michigan State) and Chris Babb (Penn State) forming a nucleus that has wins over Kansas and Baylor.

Most, however, will hope for the third NCAA tourney meeting between UK and UConn since 2006. A year after beating Kentucky in the Final Four en route to the national title, Jim Calhoun's Huskies might have been this season's biggest underachiever. Connecticut enters the NCAAs having lost 10 of its last 16 games.

Calhoun has battled back issues that have many speculating he might hang up his whistle once this season ends.

What UConn does have is talent. According to nbadraft.net, Connecticut freshman center Andre Drummond (No. 2) and sophomore shooting guard Jeremy Lamb (No. 5) would both be taken in the top five picks of this year's NBA Draft.

It's possible UK's toughest game short of the Final Four could come here.

Story line three: Revenge?

If the seeds hold, Kentucky's round of 16 game in Atlanta would be against a familiar foe: No. 4 Indiana.

No one around UK has forgotten Christian Watford's buzzer-beater in Bloomington. How could they? Even last week, the Wildcats players were talking about the repeat showings of Watford's dagger on ESPN for promotional reasons.

However, don't necessarily pencil in another round of Cats-Hoosiers.

No. 5 seed Wichita State, with a senior-heavy roster led by 7-foot center Garrett Stutz and versatile 6-5 guard Toure' Murry, has the makings of a mid-major that can make deep a tourney run.

Story line four: The 20th anniversary.

If the seeds hold, the South Regional's Final Four bid will come down to UK and No. 2 Duke.

On the 20-year anniversary of Christian Laettner's buzzer beater that broke the hearts of the Unforgettables (including Woods), how great would that be?

The current Blue Devils, led by high-scoring guards Austin Rivers and Seth Curry and big-men brothers Mason and Miles Plumlee, likely overachieved to get to 27-5.

If, however, Mike Krzyzewski's crew makes it to the top-rated Cats, they would be cast in the role Kentucky played 20 years earlier against Laettner and Grant Hill: The underdogs with nothing to lose and all to gain.

Not that Duke is a lock to get to UK. In terms of talent, the Baylor roster might be the third-most stacked in all of college basketball, behind only Kentucky and North Carolina. Whether Scott Drew can get his third-seeded team to play to its talent level is a constant question.

No. 6 UNLV has wins over UNC, California and Illinois on its résumé and could be a potent dark horse.

Still, what could be Kentucky's route to NCAA title number eight could include wins over Connecticut, Indiana, Duke, Michigan State and North Carolina.

For those with an appreciation of UK basketball and its history, could any title run be any sweeter?

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230.Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com

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