The Wildcats' championship run brought Kentucky publicity that, as Gov. Steve Beshear said, "you can't buy."
On the Saturday of the semi-final match with Louisville, for example, The New York Times published an article about the new economic collaboration between the in-state rivals' hometowns.
Under the headline, "Competitors on the Court, but Economic Teammates," readers learned of the Brookings Institution's role in guiding the effort by mayors Jim Gray and Greg Fischer in an era when rising global competition means neighboring U.S. cities can no longer afford to be rivals.
The reporter pointed out that a big obstacle to developing the envisioned high-tech manufacturing cluster is Kentucky's historically low levels of education.
A University of Kentucky economics professor was quoted as saying, "In education, we're flat and at the bottom."
Fortunately, Kentucky's education picture is more nuanced and buoyant than that.
Unfortunately, potential investors who read The Times don't know it, even though it makes for more interesting reading: Big systemic reforms in the 1990s, backed by real money, moved the dial on education indicators that for generations had seemed cemented to the bottom.
There's even an element of suspense: Will today's leaders, in Frankfort and around the state, provide the follow-through that produces more change and more gains in education?
It's true that older Kentuckians are among the country's least educated. Look at younger adults, those who would provide the work force for new industries and employers, and the picture brightens.
Kentuckians are now graduating from high school at a rate above the national average. Kentucky ranks 32nd in high school graduation among 25-to-34-year-olds, according to the Census Bureau's 2010 American Community Survey — and 50th among those 65 and older.
In higher education, the age gap is not as dramatic but still striking. From 2000 to 2009, Kentuckians aged 25 to 44 with an associate degree or higher increased from 27.3 percent to 33.7 percent.
This is the age cohort most directly affected by education reforms. Kentucky moved from 44th among states to 36th in education attainment in this age group, the largest advance of any state, according to a report by the Denver-based National Center for Higher Education Management Systems for the state Council on Postsecondary Education.
The report noted that other states with traditionally small college-educated populations were also showing notable gains — a sign perhaps that youngsters know the farms, factories and mines that employed their elders are gone for good.
The improvements are real but tenuous, and Kentucky is still playing catchup. By the 2010 American Community Survey, Kentucky had slipped to 40th in higher education for the 25-to-34 age group.
Even maintaining the swift rate of improvement from 2000 to 2009, Kentucky would fall short of its 2020 goal of reaching the national average in college attainment for adults under 45, according to the Denver consultants.
If Kentucky has any hope of competing economically, it has to keep pushing up education levels — and do it in the most strategic ways.
Kentucky's outdated tax base can no longer be counted on to generate adequate revenues for education — a reality that should drive the upcoming consideration of tax reform.
To read the New York Times article on the Lexington-Louisville collaboration: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/31/us/lexington-louisville-mayors-seek-economic-partnership.html)