Sports

Only two areas of concern for Cats

Happy days are here again in the Kingdom of the Blue.

Kentucky enters NCAA Tournament play Thursday in New Orleans as a No. 1 seed for the first time since 2004.

At ESPN.com, eight out of 12 college basketball "experts" have John Calipari's kiddie Cats ending the longest UK Final Four drought in NCAA tourney history by advancing to this season's final weekend.

Patrick Patterson, DeMarcus Cousins and John Wall give UK a trio of players that, in terms of talent on one team, no other school can match.

It's good to be Kentucky.

Of course, it is the paradoxical nature of the University of Kentucky basketball experience that when things seem especially robust, the predominant fan pastime becomes fretting over what could go wrong.

On the morning when UK (32-2) will play No. 16 seed East Tennessee State in the East Region first round, let's take the temperature on what the KOB should worry about as the Cats embark on the trek for NCAA title No. 8.

While "ecstatic" over what he calls Kentucky's return to basketball "relevance," former UK guard J.P. Blevins fears karma.

"It just seems like we've won every close game," Blevins said, noting UK's miraculous escape against Mississippi State in the SEC Tournament finals. "Because we've pulled out so many close ones, I just worry that in the one tournament that really matters, the ball doesn't bounce to DeMarcus Cousins at the end of the game for a put-back" (as on the play that sent the SEC championship to overtime).

Joe B. Hall, the coach who captured Kentucky's fifth NCAA title, fears the tendency UK has shown all year to build big leads, then let opponents back in games.

"If they do that in the NCAA against good teams, once you let the momentum swing, it can be hard to get it back," Hall said. "I think Kentucky will be ready to play. But I worry about them handling success."

Michael Porter, last year's starting UK point guard, is concerned about the Cats "running into a hot team that plays really well on a night when, maybe, we're not hitting our shots. Really, that's the only thing that worries me."

Here are the two areas on which I think Kentucky fans should concentrate their fretting.

1. As Kentucky's perimeter attack became consistently more inconsistent as the season played on, Calipari made a point of saying outside shooting would not be the facet that kills the Cats in the NCAAs.

That may or may not prove true, but in 19 SEC games, three-point shooting was the best indicator of how Kentucky fared.

In the 10 conference games UK won by 10 points or more, the Cats shot 35.6 percent (72-for-202) on treys and made 7.2 three-point shots a game.

Conversely, in the nine contests Kentucky either lost or won by single digits, the three-point shooting was a chilly 21.5 percent (32-for-149) and only 3.6 were made on average.

2. Was UK's schedule rigorous enough to prepare the Cats for a national title run? Among the teams seen as genuine national title aspirants, Kentucky's slate rates substantially the lowest.

According to the Web site RealTimeRPI.com, Kansas State played the nation's second-toughest schedule, with West Virginia (third), Kansas (fifth), Duke (eighth) and Syracuse (11th) not far behind.

The UK schedule, meanwhile, ranked 31st. That's not Kentucky's fault. When you put Connecticut, North Carolina, Louisville and Indiana on your non-conference slate, you expect to get the best of the best. This year, those historic hoops blue bloods turned out to be distinctly proletarian in their play.

As a result, it's possible UK's youthful team really hasn't seen the caliber of and diversity of opponents it needs to be fully prepared for March Madness.

Which, of course, shouldn't matter at all against ETSU. Coming into the 2010 NCAA Tournament, No. 16 seeds are 0-100 all-time against No. 1s in the era of the 64-team bracket. That doesn't give the Buccaneers much hope, even though they have a rich legacy (hello, Lute Olson) of playing high seeds tough in NCAA play.

If the Kingdom of the Blue needs something to fret over in round one, watch the game's margin. In the last five years, the eventual national champion won its opening tourney contest by 43, 24, 43, 26 and 28 points, respectively.

Should the Cats not put a bludgeoning on the Bucs, that would be a worrisome indicator.

In the meantime, we'll surmise that most Kentucky fans are just happy again to have a team in the tourney good enough to be worried about.

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