A week ago, John Calipari summed up Kentucky basketball’s regular season quite nicely.
“The good news is we haven’t peaked,” said the head coach. “The bad news is we haven’t peaked.”
Sunday, after the Cats’ initial postseason foray produced an SEC Tournament title with an 82-65 win over Arkansas, event MVP De’Aaron Fox advanced the narrative one step further.
“We don’t know what peaking is just yet,” said the freshman guard who scored 22 points to rock the Razorbacks, “but I think we’re playing our best brand of basketball this year.”
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They’d better be.
Given the treacherous track the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee has laid before Kentucky, the No. 2 seed in the South Region will need to play its best basketball to have a chance to succeed and proceed to the Final Four that first weekend in April in Glendale, Ariz.
Once upon a time, the committee tried to avoid filling particular brackets with teams that had met in the regular season. Not this year and especially not where the Cats are concerned.
If Kentucky can survive opening weekend in Indianapolis, a Calipari return to South region host Memphis, where he coached the Tigers for nine seasons, might bring murderous matchups against two teams that UK split with during the regular season.
First there’s UCLA, the South’s No. 3 seed. You remember UCLA. Behind standout freshman guard Lonzo Ball, the Bruins rolled into Rupp Arena on Dec. 3 and snapped Kentucky’s 42-game home-court winning streak with a 97-92 win.
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The victory quickly catapulted Steve Alford’s young club into the national spotlight. By year’s end, the Bruins were 29-4 overall and 15-3 in the Pac-12, ranked third in the latest AP poll before falling 86-75 to Arizona in its conference tournament semifinals.
If Kentucky can avenge the UCLA loss, there waiting could be another all-too-familiar foe in ACC regular season champ North Carolina, which Kentucky edged 103-100 on Dec. 17 at the CBS Sports Classic in Las Vegas.
Only, here’s the thing: UK needed a record 47 points from freshman guard Malik Monk that afternoon to beat Roy Williams’ club in what was a regular-season classic played at a breakneck pace.
North Carolina has had its ups and down since, and some people questioned the committee’s decision to hand the Heels a No. 1 seed. After all, UNC lost two of three games to archrival Duke. The second defeat happened Friday night in Brooklyn in the semifinals of the ACC Tournament, which Duke captured by beating Notre Dame in Saturday’s title game. Still, the committee gave Duke the No. 2 seed in the East Region while putting Carolina on the top line.
To its credit, however, North Carolina did win the regular-season title of the nation’s best league, arguably the best top-to-bottom league in college hoops history. Eight ACC teams (Duke, Louisville, Miami, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Virginia, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest) were chosen for the 68-team NCAA field. The Tar Heels’ 14-4 record in league play speaks for itself.
Carolina also boasts veterans Justin Jackson, Joel Berry, Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks, among others, from the team that lost to Villanova on a last-second shot in last season’s national championship game.
Is Kentucky up to the challenge? A month ago, the answer was ‘no.’ That was when Calipari’s club suffered a 22-point gut-punch of a loss at Florida, its third defeat in four games. After a strong start in which UK overwhelmed foes with speed and athleticism, the season appeared to be sliding off the rails.
The Cats haven’t lost since. They’ve won 11 straight. They’ve won close games, slowly played games, physical games. That 88-66 loss in Gainesville dropped UK’s record to 1-4 in games in which it failed to score 80 points. Since then, under the same criteria, Kentucky is 7-0.
“I think that winning this was a definite confidence booster for everybody,” guard Isaiah Briscoe said Sunday after the SEC title game. “I think we can still be better. There’s always room for improvement.”
Sunday’s draw leaves little room for error, however. In Nashville, Kentucky showed that it is indeed capable of navigating its way to the Final Four. Sunday night, however, the NCAA showed the Cats the road might be familiar but it won’t be easy.