John Clay: Old Cats were a No. 8 seed, but what about new Cats?

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 16, 2014 

Kentucky's Willie Cauley-Stein slammed down a pass from James Young as UK played Florida in the SEC championship game. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff

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ATLANTA — Saturday night, after his team had won a spot in the SEC Tournament finals, John Calipari made an offhand remark that turned out to be downright prophetic.

"Our strength of schedule's three or four, depending on where you look. Three or four. Our RPI is anywhere 12, 13, 11, right in that range," said the Kentucky coach. "I mean, that sounds like an eight-seed to me, but I don't know."

Calipari was slipping in some sly sarcasm, of course, but turned out he did know.

Right there it was on the NCAA Tournament selection show with host Greg Gumbel. After announcing unbeaten Wichita State was the Midwest Region's No. 1 seed, he said that the Shockers would play the winner of — drumroll — "No. 8 Kentucky vs. No. 9 Kansas State in St. Louis."

Insider info?

"No," said Calipari on Sunday night not long after his team had drug Florida right down to the final second before losing a heartbreaker 61-60, but the coach indicated that, well, the NCAA being the NCAA and Kentucky being Kentucky, he could see the handwriting on the wall.

"I told the team I thought we'd be an eight," Calipari said, "and they said, 'No way.'"

Way.

Not only is Kentucky a No. 8 seed, the Cats were dumped into the NCAA's official Monster Midwest Region, with the likes of the unbeaten Shockers, No. 2 seed Michigan, No. 3 seed Duke and No. 4 seed Louisville.

Michigan won the Big Ten regular season, by the way. Louisville just won the American Athletic Conference in a walk. And Duke is Duke.

Wait a minute, though, did Kentucky deserve better than a No. 8 seed?

Based on the regular season, the Cats probably got just about what they deserved. Yes, they played a tough schedule, but they didn't beat many good teams on that schedule. They were 1-4 against Top 25 RPI teams, the lone win the victory over Louisville in Rupp Arena back in December.

The Cats lost three of their last four regular-season games. They lost to South Carolina, one of the worst teams in a league that had just three teams picked for the NCAA Tournament. They were swept by NIT entry Arkansas. And they lost by 19 at Florida in the season finale.

Those were the old and un-tweaked Cats. The new-and-improved Cats exhibited a welcome energy, enthusiasm and efficiency at the SEC Tournament, throttling LSU and Georgia before rallying from a 15-point deficit to come within a James Young slip-and-slide on the final play of getting a shot up to knock off the mighty Gators.

Not that a victory would have made a difference to the selection committee. Blame Mike Slive. The SEC bowed to the TV dollar and tipped off its tournament final less than three hours before the selection show even though the NCAA said that was too late to make a difference in the final seedings.

"We'd have been an eight if we had won," Calipari said. "They had their minds made up. The only way to prove them wrong is go play ball."

If they play the type of ball they played this weekend, they could prove plenty of people wrong.

Friday foe Kansas State carries a three-game losing streak to St. Louis. Kentucky was 15th in the RPI computer rankings. Kansas State is 50th.

Says here Kentucky will advance to a Sunday date with Wichita State. The Midwest's No. 1, and first team to reach the NCAA Tournament undefeated since UNLV in 1991, will play the pre-season No. 1.

Wichita State is the mid-major Florida, only a mid-major that went to the Final Four last year and led Louisville in the national semifinal with six minutes to go.

Like the Gators, Wichita State has a group of veterans that play team-first basketball on both sides of the floor.

And yet, Kentucky came within a shot of beating the real Gators. If the new-look Cats can come that close to knocking off the NCAA Tournament's overall No. 1 seed, even the No. 8 seed can — emphasis on can — beat the Midwest Region's No. 1-seed.

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

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