Mark Story: Basketball gods smiling on Kentucky

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 19, 2012 

Kentucky Wildcats guard Doron Lamb (20) flashed the three signal after hitting one for some of his 16 points as #1 Kentucky defeated Iowa State 87-71 on Saturday March 17, 2012 in Louisville, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff

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  • 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

NCAA Tournament winners and losers can be more complicated than just the final score:

Winner: Kentucky. Has any NCAA tourney overall No. 1 seed ever had a tournament break wide open for it like UK has in 2012?

Consider the plight of the three other No. 1 seeds. Michigan State lost valuable wing Branden Dawson to a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the regular-season finale. Syracuse found out last week it would be without its defensive stopper of a big man, Fab Melo, due to ineligibility.

North Carolina — the team whose combined talent and experience make it the most formidable threat to UK — has two of its core players hampered by wrist injuries. Shot-blocker John Henson (sprained wrist) returned to action against Creighton in the round of 32 only for the Tar Heels to see indispensable point guard Kendall Marshall suffer a broken bone in his (non-shooting) right wrist in their victory over the Bluejays.

Meanwhile, just in the South Regional, Indiana (the Cats' next foe) lost veteran guard Verdell Jones III to a torn ACL in the Big Ten Tournament. Duke, the No. 2 seed, played without starting power forward Ryan Kelly and didn't even make it out of the round of 64.

It is as if the basketball gods are clearing the journey for Kentucky.

Loser: Duke. A program the magnitude of Duke's should NEVER lose to a 15 seed. Period. Not even a capable one as Lehigh proved to be. The Blue Devils' problem was that their roster was completely out of balance, all shooting guards and Plumlee brothers (i.e. ... post players).

Winner: Marquis Teague. If the Kentucky point guard stays anywhere close to the level he displayed against Iowa State, Kentucky is going to hang banner No. 8.

Loser: Isaiah Canaan. Love the Murray State guard (in fact, voted him third behind Anthony Davis and Thomas Robinson on my Wooden Award ballot), but Canaan's jump shot deserted him late in the season. In Murray's final three games, Canaan shot a combined 12-for-43 (4-for-20 on three-pointers).

Winner: Steve Prohm. The way the first-year Murray State head coach carried himself in Louisville last week was impressive. His team was well-coached without being overcoached.

Loser: Those already pumping Steve Prohm for other head-coaching jobs. Prohm, 37, was not the head coach who recruited this year's Murray State team (though he was on the staff of Billy Kennedy that did). As a head man, Prohm's never had to handle replenishing a roster after severe graduation losses or shown he can bounce back after a bad season. Long term, Prohm and schools that might want to hire him would both be better served to give the young head coach a few more years of seasoning.

Winner: Ray Harper. The new Western Kentucky head coach needs to add a point guard and another big to the impressive freshman nucleus of Derrick Gordon, George Fant and T.J. Price. If he does, WKU will be positioned to do damage in future NCAAs.

Loser: Anyone who had the misfortune to use my tournament projections from the Herald-Leader NCAA preview to fill out their brackets. It hasn't been pretty.

Winner: State of Ohio. Four teams — four! — in the round of 16. Wonder how Urban Meyer feels about working in a basketball state?

Loser: State of California. Four teams from the Golden State combined to win zero games. Where have you gone, John Wooden?

Winner: KFC Yum Center. In its first shot playing host to an NCAA Tournament, the Louisville arena — and the people running it — proved more than Big Dance-worthy. Between Rupp Arena and the Yum, we as a state need to get to the point where we have NCAA Tournament sessions in Kentucky every year.

Loser: Kevin Stallings. Given the capable class of Jeffrey Taylor, Festus Ezeli, Lance Goulbourne and Brad Tinsley, the Vanderbilt coach won a whopping one NCAA Tournament game in four years.

Winner: Mike Krzyzewski. My least favorite saying in the entire pantheon of sports cliches is: Show me a good loser, and I'll show you a loser.

What balderdash.

Coach K is the winningest coach in the history of his sport, has four national titles and an Olympic gold medal on his coaching résumé.

After the shocking loss to Lehigh, Krzyzewski in his post-game television interview handled defeat with grace, heaping credit onto the Mountain Hawks and their star, C.J. McCollum. It was the same class Krzyzewski showed in 1998 after Kentucky rallied from 17 points down in the final 10 minutes to beat Duke in the round of eight.

For showing a winner can — should — handle losing with dignity, Coach K was a victor even in defeat.

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

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