Going into this weekend's Midwest Region finals, Orlando Antigua had a decidedly low-key reaction to being the only coach in this historic season to beat Kentucky. Of course, the UK defeat didn't count. Still, the Antigua-led Dominican National Team did beat UK 63-62 in an August exhibition game in the Bahamas.
"Such a long time ago," Antigua said last week. He also noted three good reasons to refrain from thumping his chest:
■ Kentucky was in the embryonic stages of team building. "The early point of what we came to know as the platoon system," he said.
■ Willie Cauley-Stein and Trey Lyles did not play in UK's six exhibition games in the Bahamas.
Never miss a local story.
■ The games did not count, and really served as dress rehearsals for both the Dominicans as well as Kentucky.
For the Dominicans, the games were tune-ups for the upcoming World Cup Tournament.
For Kentucky, the games were a chance to look at how the players would accept playing fewer minutes. The answer was quite well, from the beginning.
After winning its first five exhibitions, Kentucky lost to the Dominicans. UK led by 10 going into the final 10 minutes.
Jack Michael Martinez improvised the winning shot: a fadeaway turn-around jumper in the lane. "Supposed to be a lot closer to the basket," Antigua said of the game-winner.
"Well, I remember the game because I missed free throws and two threes at the end," Tyler Ulis said Friday.
But when asked about the significance of the loss, Ulis said, "Well, you know, we haven't talked about that, honestly. But, technically, we haven't lost yet because the Bahamas didn't count.
"We did lose a game. We understand we can (lose) eventually, if we don't come out and play."
As UK fans know, Antigua was an assistant on John Calipari's staff the previous five seasons. He called his first season as South Florida coach "a great learning experience." The team had a 9-23 record.
Antigua noted the benefit of experiencing and dealing with adversity.
The man charged with improving the profile of SEC basketball, associate commissioner Mark Whitworth, was in Cleveland. Of course, he was. Where else could he be?
Kentucky was the only league school that survived the first week of NCAA Tournament play.
Accentuating the positive, Whitworth noted that five SEC teams played in the NCAA Tournament. That's two more than in either 2013 and 2014.
"That's progress," Whitworth said.
Of course, the league would have liked more of its teams to advance to the Sweet 16. A combination of factors prevented that from happening.
Sometimes credit should go to — gasp — the other team. Georgia lost to Michigan State in its first game and Arkansas lost to North Carolina in the round of 32. In both cases, the better-seeded team won.
The schedule-makers (i.e. the television masters) did Ole Miss no favors. The Rebels had to play late Tuesday night in Dayton in the First Four. Then after an improbable comeback victory over BYU, Ole Miss lost Thursday afternoon to Xavier in Jacksonville, Fla. C'mon, TV, couldn't you allow a team in that situation to play either earlier Tuesday or later Thursday?
No doubt, LSU's loss to North Carolina State gave the SEC a black eye. LSU led by 14 at the half, LSU continued to dictate play into the second half, leading 62-48 with 9:15 to go.
A familiar bugaboo — the failure to finish off opponents — returned. The Tigers didn't have a field goal in the last 10 minutes, missed several free throws down the stretch, shot 29 percent in the second half and lost. North Carolina State outscored LSU 18-3 in the final minutes and won 66-65, the winning basket coming with a tenth of a second on the clock.
"Overall, we're very pleased with the progress we've made," Whitworth said.
He also suggested that in the perception game, the SEC can't win for losing.
When asked about how NCAA Tournament results label teams or leagues as good or bad, Whitworth said, "If that's the case, the fact we had three in the (Sweet 16) last year and two in the Final Four, then we should have been viewed as, if not the top league, then one of the top leagues in the country."
Of course, that wasn't the case.
"There were some who said we need to be a deeper league," Whitworth said.
So this year's NCAA Tournament includes five SEC teams (and maybe the league would have had a sixth had Texas A&M not lost Danuel House to injury).
"We've addressed that," Whitworth said of the need to have more quality teams. "I don't think there's any doubt that this league is trending in the right direction."
Whitworth noted how former SEC Commissioner Mike Slive made improving the league's profile in men's basketball a priority. The league strongly encouraged programs to improve their non-conference schedules in order to be better positioned for an NCAA Tournament bid.
A league-wide effort to improve the perception of SEC basketball will make that happen, Whitworth said. It's only a matter of time.
"When they commit to something like our (athletic directors) have committed to get better at basketball, you're going to have results," he said. "It's just going to happen. That's why I'm encouraged."
The ACC tied an NCAA record with five teams reaching the Sweet 16 round: Duke, North Carolina, Notre Dame, N.C. State and Louisville. That marked the ninth time the ACC has had four or more teams in the Sweet 16. After the ACC comes the Big East (five times), the Big Ten (four), Pacific 12 (three), SEC (two) and Big 12 (one).
When Notre Dame beat Wichita State on Thursday, the ACC was assured of placing at least one team in the Elite Eight for a 33rd time in the last 36 years, and 49th time in the 62-year history of the league.
With victories in the second, third and Sweet 16 rounds of this year's South Regional, Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski raised his all-time leading NCAA Tournament victory total to 85. North Carolina Coach Roy Williams tied his mentor Dean Smith for second place on the all-time list with the Tar Heels' two opening-week victories in the West Regional. Williams and Smith each have 65 NCAA Tournament victories.
UK fan Ernie Harned sat in the Quicken Loans Arena on Wednesday and watched Wichita State's open-to-the-public shoot-around. His favorite team, Kentucky, was not scheduled to be on the court for another three hours.
Harned, 59, did not have tickets to the game. He wasn't even in Cleveland for basketball reasons.
It was pure coincidence that Harned and the UK team were in Cleveland at the same time. His wife, Sharon Harned, was a patient at the famed Cleveland Clinic. She had four incurable diseases, he said.
As for the basketball, Harned was downright prescient about West Virginia's much-discussed pressure defense.
"I don't see their pressure bothering us," he said. "Teams have tried to press us, and it hasn't been good for them."
Harned, who lives 50 miles southwest of Louisville, was more concerned with WVU Coach Bob Huggins.
"He comes across, to me, like a guy who knows something you don't know," Harned said.
Perhaps the most poignant moment of the Midwest Region came after Kentucky's soul-crushing 78-39 rout of West Virginia.
WVU Coach Bob Huggins and team leader Juwan Staten had to walk about the length of a football field to get from the locker room to the formal news conference. With reporters lined up along the hallway, Huggins draped a protective arm around Staten's shoulders and seemed to be trying to console the player as they walked.
Making freshmen ineligible again has been an idea floating around the Pac-12 and Big Ten conferences.
UK freshman Tyler Ulis recoiled.
"It's a little late for us, now," he said. "But if I couldn't play for this year, I would probably be really upset because this is a special team, and we probably won't play on a team like this ever again."
Fellow freshman Devin Booker agreed.
"I would be disappointed if we couldn't play," he said. "But I've heard the rumors. ... and I'm glad I'm past my freshman year."
Man on the run
New SEC commissioner Greg Sankey attended the Kentucky-West Virginia game Thursday night. He was scheduled to leave Cleveland on Friday morning and attend the women's tournament game between South Carolina and North Carolina Friday night in Greensboro, N.C.
Sankey has run 41 marathons in his life.
In a period between 2008 and 2010, he ran a marathon in 15 straight months. He's backed off that pace, in part, because his Achilles' tendons begged for mercy.
Sankey has run in three Boston Marathons and two New York City Marathons.
The U.S. Basketball Writers Association voted Tony Bennett of Virginia as its National Coach of the Year. Not a big surprise. This season Bennett continued elevating a nondescript program into a national contender. The Cavaliers have had a better winning percentage in each of Bennett's six seasons as coach than the year before.
The surprise was learning John Calipari has never won the award. Also surprising; Neither has Rick Pitino nor Mike Krzyzewski.
The lure of a story based in overachievement is powerful, although Virginia did have a 30-7 record in 2013-14. (Full disclosure: I did not vote this year.)
To Charles Hurt. He turned 54 on Saturday. ... To Sean Woods. He turns 45 on Sunday (today). ... To former UK assistant Ralph Willard. He turns 69 on Sunday (today). ... To Johnathan Davis. He turns 46 on Monday. ... To former UK football coach Hal Mumme. He turns 63 on Sunday (today). ... To DeAndre Liggins. He turns 27 on Tuesday. ... To Saul Smith. He turned 36 on Saturday.