John Clay: Bracket 'conspiracy' working out pretty well for UK

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 18, 2012 

  • Kentucky vs. Western Kentucky

    When: 7 p.m. Saturday
    Where: LP Field in Nashville
    TV: ESPNews
    Radio: WBUL-FM 98.1; WLAP-AM 630; WWRW-FM 105.5

First rule in any public endeavor: Know your audience.

No one knows his audience better than John Calipari.

On Selection Sunday, the brackets revealed, the Kentucky coach went on the conspiratorial attack, playing right into his fan base's fears.

Calipari said he knew the NCAA would have Connecticut waiting for his Wildcats in the second round.

He knew Indiana, the only team to beat UK in the regular season, would be in the Wildcats' path.

He knew, on the 20th anniversary of the Christian Laettner shot, Duke would be the No. 2 seed in the Cats' region.

"I'm surprised," the coach deadpanned, "the NCAA didn't send us to Dayton (for the First Four)."

Effect: Motivation.

A week later, the plot doesn't look so clandestine. If the NCAA was truly trying to throw grenades along Kentucky's path, the scuds have turned out to be duds.

Ranked No. 4 in the pre-season, Connecticut might have matched up well with Kentucky, but the Huskies couldn't advance past Iowa State in the Round of 64. So long, Jim Calhoun.

Duke might be a Big Blue bugaboo, but the overrated Dookies were exposed by No. 15 seed Lehigh in a historic Friday night upset. So long, Coach K.

On the other side of the bracket, the NCAA apparently hates Kentucky so much it ruled Syracuse center Fab Melo ineligible.

North Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall broke a bone in his wrist Sunday and forward John Henson has been nursing a sore/sprained/mangled (take your pick) wrist.

And No. 2 seed Missouri, the little team that supposedly could, fell prey to Norfolk State's jumpers.

True, Indiana maneuvered past Virginia Commonwealth to a Sweet 16 rematch with the Cats, just as Calipari's crystal ball predicted. And yet, considering the Hoosiers no longer have Verdell Jones (torn anterior cruciate ligament) and Kentucky has motivation (along with superior talent), UK has to be the heavy favorite when the two teams lace up their sneakers Friday night in Atlanta.

But then, considering the delicious way Kentucky played in the Yum Center over the weekend, you wonder whether any team, or conspiracy theory, is capable of stopping the Cats' train to New Orleans.

Western Kentucky Coach Ray Harper nitpicked Thursday night that UK needed better perimeter shooting. So the Cats came out Saturday against Iowa State and made 10 of 20 three-pointers.

"They want to talk about our three– point shooting," Calipari said afterward. "We're one of the best in the country. We just don't shoot a lot. And we don't shoot a lot because we get to the rim, we throw lobs, we play different. We get a lot in transition. If you make us shoot threes, we will shoot them."

Iowa State was known as a deadeye three-point-shooting team, just the sort of collection that has given UK problems. So the Kentucky defense forced the Cyclones into missing 19 of 22 shots behind the arc.

Before the post-season began, some questioned whether freshman point guard Marquis Teague was capable of rising to the occasion. Saturday, the Indianapolis native scored a career-high 24 points.

"He knew they were double– teaming them off of him," said Calipari. "So he said, 'Guys, I'm cutting to the rim. I'm cutting to the rim. My man is the guy that's leaving.'

"And we all looked, and I said, 'Do you guys understand what he's saying?' And they did."

It's far from over, of course. The Cats are not even halfway to hanging banner No. 8.

So far, the bracket sort of feels that way. Others are leaving, and Kentucky is taking it straight to the rim.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com

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