Cats face 'stacked' bracket in South Regional

jsmith3@herald-leader.comMarch 11, 2012 

The Wildcats were in the air back to Lexington as the NCAA Tournament bracket was unveiled on television.

But it didn't take long for the names of potential future opponents to pop up on their phones as the team landed in Lexington. Names like Connecticut, Duke and Indiana.

There was even first-round intrigue for the Cats in the form of getting the winner of a game between Western Kentucky and Mississippi Valley State, team of former UK standout Sean Woods.

The players all said it looks like a tough road, even for the tournament's top team, which will start its bid for an eighth championship in Louisville on Thursday.

"We've got a lot of competition and have to take every game seriously," Terrence Jones told members of the media gathered at Coach John Calipari's house after the draw was revealed.

"We've got a little bit of motivation behind a lot of games to try to give ourselves more of an edge. It should just be fun."

"Fun" wasn't exactly the word that came to mind for the Kentucky head coach as he discussed his team's position as the top seed in the South Region.

"The only thing I was happy about is I heard (the committee) was trying to get an exemption for the (Miami) Heat to be the second seed in our bracket, and they weren't allowed to get that, so they couldn't put them in there, too," Calipari said.

Days after Kentucky lost its only regular-season game at Indiana, Calipari said he told Hoosier Coach Tom Crean that he predicted the two teams would see each other again.

If UK gets past the winner of MVSU and Western Kentucky, the Cats would get the winner of Iowa State and Connecticut in the second round. Then it would be a potential rematch with the Hoosiers.

There will be no easy games in the South Regional, Calipari said.

"First game will be hard," he said. "The second game will be like a war. If you're lucky enough to move on from there, it's one team after another. They stacked the region and that's OK."

He wasn't able to study the bracket because of the quick turnaround from losing to Vanderbilt in the Southeastern Conference Tournament championship game to the bracket's unveiling, but Calipari said there's no question that it's a region filled with talent.

"I know to that point who's in Louisville with us and those are all hard," he said. "We're going to be lucky to win."

Kentucky's players weren't as forward thinking as their head coach.

They said they can't worry about teams like second seed Duke or the drama surrounding a rematch of the famed 1992 game.

"We just can't do that," senior Darius Miller said when asked about the marquee names in UK's bracket. "We take it one game at a time. You can't look forward, that's not guaranteed."

But Miller said there's no denying the power that resides in UK's South Regional, with the semifinals and finals being played in Atlanta.

"We've got some really talented teams in our bracket, some really good teams," Miller said. "We're going to have to play the best teams eventually anyway. It doesn't matter when we play them. We're going to have to play them regardless."

On his dark patio Sunday night, the Kentucky coach told the media he was able to watch the Cats' loss to Vanderbilt on the flight home.

Calipari said he was "stunned" that UK missed so many open shots in the final minutes of the game.

There was some discussion among the UK staff that maybe the players were tired after playing three physical games in as many days.

So he plans to give the players a break on Monday before they begin what he hopes will be a long run through the NCAA Tournament.

"I'm ready to get to work," Calipari said. "But I'm probably going to give these guys (Monday) off completely, just let them get their senses back and get off the court and get their minds back."

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukfootball.bloginky.com, ukwomen.bloginky.com

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