Sports

Schedule strength doesn't faze Calipari

Besides inexperience, the factor most in question about Kentucky going into the NCAA Tournament involved strength of schedule. Because North Carolina, Connecticut and Louisville had down years, UK went into the tournament with its most modest regular-season strength of schedule rating in at least 15 years.

Something to fret about?

UK Coach John Calipari didn't think so. Heading into the tournament, he dismissed the notion that Kentucky will suffer from sticker shock when it faces a more talented opponent than it's used to seeing.

"I don't think it'll hurt us in any way," Calipari said of UK's rating as the 31st toughest schedule, according to collegerpi.com. "When you look at our schedule, you say, 'Wow. They played a good schedule. They took on all comers.' "

The numbers suggest you say, UK played a good schedule. But not the toughest.

Of the four No. 1 seeds, UK played a weaker schedule than Kansas, Duke or Syracuse, according to the Sagarin or collegerpi.com ratings.

Of the 65 teams in the NCAA Tournament, Kentucky's schedule rates almost squarely in the middle in terms of difficulty. Thirty-one teams played a tougher schedule. Thirty-three played a weaker schedule.

Significant?

"I doubt it," said Jay Bilas, a college basketball analyst for ESPN and ABC. "If they played North Carolina and Connecticut at their strongest, maybe they'd be 28-5. So what? They'd still be unbelievably good."

Bilas considered Kentucky the second-best team going into the NCAA Tournament.

NCAA Tournament history and this year's first round suggest there's no need for UK fans to worry.

Of the last 15 national champions, seven had played a worse-rated regular-season schedule than Kentucky's in 2009-10, according to collegerpi.com. Those seven were Kansas in 2008 (No. 63), Florida in 2007 (No. 46), Florida in 2006 (No. 75), Syracuse in 2003 (No. 38), Maryland in 2002 (No. 106), Michigan State in 2000 (No. 37) and UCLA in 1995 (No. 67).

In first-round games this season, teams with a tougher-rated regular-season schedule won 20 games and lost 12. Among Southeastern Conference teams, Kentucky and Tennessee won against opponents with weaker-rated schedules. Vanderbilt and Florida lost.

Vanderbilt's loss to Murray State marked the biggest difference in a game won by the team having played weaker competition. Murray State's schedule rated No. 287, according to Sagarin, and Vandy's No. 45.

Calipari suggested that the way opponents regularly play their best against UK makes a critical difference.

"Us, Kansas and a few other teams, you're going to get everybody's best shot," he said, "and it prepares you."

Fab Five or Kiddie Cats?

With a national championship, Kentucky might become the greatest young team in college basketball history. Or, perhaps, even a title would not allow UK to supplant Michigan's Fab Five as the team to think of when pondering precocious freshmen.

Chris Webber or DeMarcus Cousins? Jalen Rose or John Wall? Juwan Howard or Daniel Orton? Jimmy King or Eric Bledsoe?

Rose, a guard on the Fab Five, passed when asked which team was best.

"It's kind of a Catch-22," Rose said. "If you're me, there's no right answer. If I say the Fab Five, people feel I'm old, bitter and hating on Kentucky. If I say Kentucky, people blow me up on Twitter. 'What are you talking about?'

"I'm a fan of Coach Cal and their team. I'm rooting for them to do well."

The Fab Five advanced to the Final Four as freshmen and returned as sophomores. That's quite a standard.

But basketball aside, Rose rated the Fab Five ahead of UK's freshman-oriented team in terms of social significance.

"We became a cultural phenomenon," Rose said. "Bald heads. Black shoes. Black socks. Baggy shorts."

By comparison, the John Wall dance is pretty tepid stuff.

"Jimmy King and I were talking about this (last week)," Rose said. "In 1992, we were not loved and adored."

The Fab Five were different and, thus, threatening to some.

Rose enjoys how society changed since the Fab Five. He noted the popularity of Kentucky's team as represented by the omnipresence of the John Wall dance.

"You can see anybody across the nation doing it," he said. "You see it on (ESPN's) SportsCenter. That's a breath of fresh air and makes me smile."

Gambling man

According to Bodog.com, Kansas was a 9-4 favorite to win the NCAA Tournament. Kentucky was the second choice at 4-1.

The person responsible for those odds is Richard Gardner, a native Canadian from British Columbia who parlayed his interest in sports and math into a career in oddsmaking.

Gardner had been working in high-tech sales. A friend worked in gambling. "He talked about how much fun he was having," Gardner said.

Gardner changed professions 14 years ago and works for Bodog Sportsbook, which is in Antigua.

Of course, favoring a team by a certain amount of points reflects not only its supposed superiority, but also an attempt to generate as much betting on both teams in the game. The same factors dictate Kansas and Kentucky as the two favorites to win the NCAA Tournament.

Kentucky fans like to put their money where their mouths are. "People can't get enough of them," Gardner said. As for generating the most betting, "Kentucky is, year in and year out, right there with Duke."

Even though it sanctions events in Las Vegas, the NCAA frowns on gambling. Newspapers have been encouraged not to publish betting lines.

Yet, Gardner noted an irony about the NCAA Tournament: It's set up perfectly for gamblers. The time between games gives gamblers the opportunity to mull bets won or lost and then place another bet.

"Those 15-minute increments (between games) are the busiest time of the year for us," Gardner said. "People say, 'I got to get my bets in.' "

According to Bodog's odds, UK is in the second-toughest region. The top four seeds (UK, West Virginia, New Mexico and Wisconsin) are among the 14 most favored teams to win it all, with the longest odds on New Mexico and Wisconsin at 40-1.

Kansas faced the toughest path to the Final Four. The four top seeds in the Midwest (Kansas, Ohio State, Georgetown and Maryland) came into the tournament among the top 11 picks to win it all. Of course, Georgetown lost its opening-round game and Kansas was eliminated Saturday.

The easiest region? The West. Among the top four seeds (Syracuse, Kansas State, Pittsburgh and Vanderbilt) were 50-1 long shots in Pitt and Vandy.

New dance partner

Most coaches subscribe to the philosophy of dance with the one that brought you. In other words, do what brought you success when you get to the NCAA Tournament.

Then there's Sam Houston State Coach Bob Marlin, who is more pragmatist than true believer in a single ideology.

Two days before playing Baylor in the NCAA Tournament first-round game, the Bearkats practiced at a rec center in New Orleans. At that practice, Marlin introduced the players to a triangle-and-two defense he wanted to use in the first round against Baylor.

When asked how unusual it was for him to try a trick defense, Marlin said, "Very unusual. We haven't used it. I don't know that I've really ever done it. ... I've been at Sam Houston 10 years, and we've never started a game in the zone."

Marlin is a Bob Knight disciple. So he prefers man-to-man defense. He showed his allegiance by wearing a St. Louis Cardinals' jacket to interviews on Wednesday. He and Knight are friends with Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa.

So a triangle-and-two marked a radical departure from orthodoxy. But his assistants decided after watching video of Baylor that the trick defense gave Sam Houston State its best chance to win.

One of his former bosses, Gene Iba, attended the game. His father, iconic coach Hank Iba, was synonymous with man-to-man defense.

"For him (Gene Iba) to be here and for us to play it, it was even more surprising to him," Marlin said.

Baylor won 68-59. But poor shooting, not the triangle-and-two, doomed Sam Houston State.

Stackhouse liked KU

Former North Carolina and current NBA player Jerry Stackhouse picked Kansas to win the national title.

He wasn't alone in that assessment nor in being proven wrong Saturday.

"Right now I just feel like Kentucky and Kansas are the two best teams and after that there's just a lot of parity," Stackhouse said on his Sirius XM radio show last week. "And any of the other top seeds could really get knocked out early in the tournament. But I do see Kansas and Kentucky, with Kansas probably cutting down the nets at the end."

Stackhouse and co-host Bill Lekas are hosts of the show Stack's House every week on SIRIUS XM's Mad Dog Radio channel.

Rupp's rants

With Kentucky in New Orleans, veteran columnist Peter Finney of The Times-Picayune recalled his first encounter with Adolph Rupp. It came after UK lost to Oklahoma A&M in the old Sugar Bowl Tournament.

"Outside a losing locker room, my first-ever question was innocent enough: 'Coach, what do you have to say?' " Finney wrote. " 'Son,' screamed Rupp, 'Don't call me coach. You're not a coach when your team scores 31 points.' "

Texas Western

In honor of the 44th anniversary of its stunning victory over Kentucky in the 1966 national championship game, UTEP (then known as Texas Western) launched a Web site that salutes the coaches and players of this historic and defining moment in sports. You can find it at www.utep.edu/gloryroad.

The Web site has a collection of photos, stories, interviews and memorabilia that chronicles the lives of the people involved in Texas Western's magical championship season that culminated with a decisive 72-65 victory over heavily favored Kentucky.

UTEP (or, if you prefer, Texas Western) remains the only university in Texas to win an NCAA men's basketball title. But, of course, that's not the team's distinction. According to the team's Hall of Fame biography, the Texas Western victory "was a key turning point in the civil rights movement in general and in the integration of college athletics in particular."

The Web site includes photographs provided by the family of the team's coach, Don Haskins, who died in 2008. It also has interviews with the coach's wife, Mary Haskins, and UTEP President Diana Natalicio, championship game photos, copies of the 1966 Final Four championship program, the 1965-66 Texas Western media guide, video highlights of the championship game and links to stories about the Miners' journey into history.

Final Four tickets

Final Four tickets are available at the Kentucky Blood Center. You just have to donate blood to become registered for a drawing in which the prize is two Final Four tickets.

Donations can be given at the Andover Donor Center (3130 Maple Leaf Drive, Suite 103) or the Beaumont Donor Center (3121 Beaumont Centre Circle) Mondays and Fridays 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Donations can also be made Saturdays 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

To reserve a time to donate, call 800-775-2522.

Happy birthday

To Darius Miller. The UK wing turns 20 Sunday.

When asked on Friday about his birthday plans, Miller said, "Nothing planned. Hopefully get this win (against Wake Forest)."

His parents and an uncle came to New Orleans for the NCAA Tournament games.

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