Mark Story: How about a UK-U of L NCAA title game in 2014?

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistApril 9, 2013 

For the state of Kentucky to become to college basketball what Alabama now is to college football, a daunting standard must be met.

Back-to-back NCAA men's basketball championships by teams from the commonwealth — the University of Kentucky in 2012; Louisville in 2013 — barely even gets our state into the conversation with Alabama. After all, teams from the Yellowhammer State (the University of Alabama three, Auburn one) have won the past four college football BCS national titles.

Four straight NCAA men's basketball championships for teams from Kentucky might be a bit much to ask, given the inherent uncertainties of a sport whose champions are picked in a one-and-done, 68-team tournament.

Still, there might be another way for our state to trump what Alabama has done in football.

How about a third straight NCAA men's hoops title for a team from Kentucky in 2014 — coming after an all-Kentucky matchup, UK vs. U of L, in the national title game?

As of Tuesday morning, we in the commonwealth are not the only ones who see that as a viable possibility next season.

On ESPN.com, the Way Too Early Top 25 for 2013-14 had Kentucky ranked No. 1 and Louisville No. 2. At CBSSports.com, the Ridiculously Early Pre-Season Top 25 had UK at No. 1, U of L No. 3 (with Michigan State second).

For the University of Kentucky to bounce back from a lackluster 2012-13 that ended in the NIT, several things have to occur.

Unlike what happened in the just concluded season, John Calipari's latest lavishly hyped recruiting class — which includes the No. 2 (Julius Randle), No. 4 (Aaron Harrison), No. 5 (Andrew Harrison), No. 10 (James Young), No. 13 (Dakari Johnson) and No. 18 (Marcus Lee) ranked players in the Rivals 150 — must live up to its lofty billing.

Returning Cats Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress and Kyle Wiltjer need to provide the kind of veteran stability Darius Miller, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb gave the freshman class on Kentucky's 2012 NCAA championship team.

After getting caught short on contributing players this past season, Calipari has gone to the other end of the spectrum and will have a roster fully stocked with star-caliber players next winter. That should give the coach more "hand" when it comes to using the bench as a motivator, but it also presents a different challenge in terms of managing egos.

Another potential issue for Calipari comes from Louisville's success. When U of L is at the top, the Kentucky fan base yearns (burns) for the Big Blue empire to strike back. In 2013-14, there will be an unrelenting pressure on the Cats to restore UK to superiority.

Louisville's chances of mounting a viable defense of its 2013 national title depends much on who enters the NBA Draft.

Crafty point guard Peyton Siva, a senior, is gone. Rick Pitino had junior center Gorgui Dieng go through Senior Day festivities in the belief that it was in the business interest of the 6-foot-11 center to turn pro now. Junior guard Russ Smith told SiriusXM radio's CollegeSportsNation on Tuesday he, too, will enter the draft.

If they are the only Cardinals who enter the play-for-pay, U of L would still deserve to start next season in the top 5. However, if sophomore power forward Chane Behanan also enters the NBA Draft, Louisville's prospects for next season look far bleaker.

With Behanan back, he and the rapidly developing Montrezl Harrell would give U of L an inside tandem that, while undersized, would be stout. Without Behanan, somebody unexpected would have to emerge as a post player to keep Louisvile among the national elite.

With Siva and Smith departing, returning wing players Wayne Blackshear and NCAA Tournament hero Luke Hancock should both become far more integral to the Louisville offense.

The Cardinals need Kevin Ware to regain his health after the gruesome NCAA tourney broken leg. If the 6-2 Ware does not make it back to full speed, the pressure on well-regarded incoming point-guard recruits Chris Jones (junior college) and Terry Rozier (prep school) amps up in a big way.

So for both Calipari and Pitino, there are significant questions heading into 2013-14. Yet there is the potential for enough right answers to be found that it seems realistic to dream that our state could put the past two NCAA championship schools into the 2014 national title game — facing each other.

Not even those Alabama football schools have pulled that off yet.

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

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