Mark Story: NCAA puts UK, U of L into "region of death"

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 16, 2014 

An up-close look at the NCAA Tournament Midwest Region — which includes Kentucky (the No. 8 seed) and Louisville (the No. 4).

A rugged path

The NCAA Tournament selection show was not even over and the Midwest was already being referred to as "the region of death" in the social media.

There is ample reason to justify that description. Consider:

1.) Since 2003, every NCAA Tournament has been won by a team that rates in the top 20 in both adjusted offense and defense in statistics guru Ken Pomeroy's ratings.

This year, there are only four such teams. Two, Louisville (No. 10 offense, No. 6 defense) and Wichita State (No. 8 offense, No. 10 defense) are in the Midwest.

(The other two teams who "qualify" to win the championship are Florida and Villanova.)

2.) To stay with the Pomeroy Ratings, the teams rated No. 2 (Louisville), No. 5 (Wichita State), No. 7 (Duke), No. 13 (Tennessee), No. 14 (Michigan) and No. 17 (Kentucky) are all in the Midwest.

3.) Three of the four most recent NCAA champions — Duke, 2010; Kentucky, 2012; Louisville, 2013 — are in the Midwest.

4.) Three of last season's Final Four teams — champion Louisville; runner-up Michigan; Wichita State — are in the Midwest.

5.) Wichita State is 34-0.

An 'angry region'

Kentucky felt disrespected by being seeded No. 8.

Louisville felt disrespected by being seeded No. 4.

Top seed Wichita State — whose motto is "Play Angry" — has every right to feel its bid to become the first undefeated NCAA champion since Indiana in 1976 was sabotaged by the NCAA Tournament committee placing it in a brutal bracket where it could have to beat Kentucky, Louisville and either Duke or Michigan just to reach the Final Four.

The 'other' Wildcats

Kentucky will open NCAA Tournament play against No. 9 seed Kansas State (20-12). KSU's Wildcats are coached by Bruce Weber, who took Illinois to the 2005 NCAA title game and are led in scoring by true freshman guard Marcus Foster (15.6 points) and burly (6-foot-7, 265 pounds) junior forward Thomas Gipson (11.8).

Reason UK fans should worry about KSU: The Wildcats have victories this season over NCAA Tournament teams Gonzaga, Oklahoma State, Texas, Kansas and Iowa State.

Reason for UK fans to feel confident about KSU: The Wildcats are 15-2 this season in home games and 5-10 in all other contests.

Familiar coaching faces

1.) No. 16 seed Texas Southern, which will face Cal-Poly in the First Four for the right to play No. 1 Wichita State, is coached by former Indiana and UAB head man Mike Davis.

2.) No. 10 Arizona State, which will face No. 7 Texas, is led by former UK assistant coach Herb Sendek.

3.) No. 13 Manhattan, which will face No. 4 Louisville in the round of 64, is coached by Steve Masiello, who walked on at Kentucky in 1996-97 and left having been a member of an NCAA title team (1998) and a national runner-up (1997).

The Shockers

Unbeaten Wichita State lost two starters, forward Carl Hall and guard Malcolm Armstead, from the team that took Louisville to the brink in the 2013 national semifinals.

Wichita State's leading scorer this season is forward Cleanthony Early (15.8 points, 5.9 rebounds). Last year against U of L in the Final Four, Early had 24 points and 10 rebounds.

Guards Ron Baker (13.1 points), Fred VanVleet (12.1) and Tekele Cotton (10.8 points) give Gregg Marshall's team four double-figure scorers.

For the season, Wichita State is outscoring foes by 15.9 points, outrebounding them by 7.8, outshooting them by 6.7 percent and is plus-46 in turnover margin.

Wichita State has victories over NCAA Tournament teams such as Tulsa (77-54), BYU (75-62), Saint Louis (70-65) and Tennessee (70-61).

Midwest 'All-Americans'

You could pick a pretty representative All-America team just from players in the 2014 Midwest Region:

F Cleanthony Early, Wichita State (see stats above)

F Jabari Parker, Duke, 19.2 ppg, 8.8 rpg

C Julius Randle, Kentucky, 15.3 ppg, 10.6 rpg

G Nik Stauskas, Michigan (17.5 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 3.3 apg)

G Russ Smith, Louisville (18.3 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 4.7 apg)

UK-U of L again?

If Kentucky and Louisville both win their first two NCAA Tournament contests, the Cats and Cardinals will face each other in the round of 16 in Indianapolis. It would be the second UK-U of L meeting in the Big Dance in the past two years. En route to the 2012 NCAA title, John Calipari's Wildcats beat Rick Pitino's Cardinals 69-61 in the national semifinals in New Orleans.

All-time, Kentucky is 3-2 against Louisville in NCAA Tournament games. The Cats beat the Cardinals in 1951, 1984 and 2012. The Cards beat the Wildcats in 1959 and 1983.

Every year in which Kentucky and Louisville have played in the NCAAs, the winner of the game has advanced to at least the Final Four.

In this year's regular-season meeting, UK beat U of L 73-66 in Rupp Arena. Since coming to Kentucky as head coach, Calipari is 5-1 against Louisville.

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

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