UK Men's Basketball

Can the state of Kentucky get its March Madness mojo back in 2017?

John Calipari and the Kentucky Wildcats were the commonwealth’s only representative in the 2016 men’s Division I NCAA basketball tournament. In 2017, the Cats will seek to do better than last season’s round-of-32 exit.
John Calipari and the Kentucky Wildcats were the commonwealth’s only representative in the 2016 men’s Division I NCAA basketball tournament. In 2017, the Cats will seek to do better than last season’s round-of-32 exit.

Before 2016, the second decade of the 21st century had been a golden age for Kentucky’s NCAA Division I men’s basketball programs.

From 2010 through 2015, every eligible Kentucky team — Eastern Kentucky, Kentucky, Louisville, Morehead State, Murray State and Western Kentucky — made at least one appearance in the NCAA Tournament.

UK and U of L combined to win two NCAA championships (Cats 2012, Cards 2013) and play in six Final Fours (UK four, U of L two).

Murray State won two NCAA tourney games (Vanderbilt 2010, Colorado State 2012). Morehead State scored the greatest win in school history (2011 round-of-64 upset of Louisville).

WKU’s 2012 First Four win over Mississippi Valley State may not have scored prestige points — but it involved a miraculous comeback in front of the president of the United States and prime minister of Great Britain.

Alas, in 2016, the magic carpet ride for Kentucky Division I college hoops made a crash landing.

For the first time since 1991, the commonwealth sent only one team — UK — to the men’s NCAA Division I Tournament. Ancient rival Indiana bounced the Cats in the round of 32.

(If you are wondering, the last time our state had no teams in the men’s NCAA Tournament was 1963.)

Now, the question before us is whether our state can turn last season’s March sadness into gladness in 2017.

The good news is both UK (21-5, 11-2 SEC) and U of L (21-5, 9-4 ACC) are already NCAA tourney shoo-ins.

Rick Pitino’s Cardinals were a No. 2 seed in last week’s early NCAA Tournament Selection Committee bracket reveal. If the Cards could muster a road win at North Carolina on Feb. 22 as part of a stout finish, U of L would seem to have a shot at a No. 1 seed.

John Calipari’s Wildcats were a No. 3 seed in last week’s bracket glimpse — which seemed to delight the coach. However, if Kentucky were to win out, is the 2-seed line beyond reach?

Our state had at least three teams in the Big Dance in 2010, ’11, ’12 (four teams) and ’14. Getting to that in 2017 will require some Cinderella magic in conference tournaments.

The commonwealth’s newest Division I program, Northern Kentucky, is on the ascent. Going into last night’s game at Cleveland State, Coach John Brannen’s Norse (17-9, 8-5 Horizon League) stood at 125 in the RPI, well ahead of Morehead State (183), Western Kentucky (226), Murray State (227) and Eastern Kentucky (258).

Kentucky Coach John Calipari reacts to his team being seeded No. 12 overall in preliminary rankings by NCAA Tournament selection committee announced Saturday.

Due to how the Horizon tourney is bracketed, Northern’s chances of earning its first-ever Division I NCAA Tournament bid would be enhanced if NKU could finish second (Valparaiso will be first) in the regular-season standings. The Norse were tied for fourth, one game out of second, going into Thursday.

Since the calendar turned to 2017, Morehead State (13-12, 9-3 OVC) has been the commonwealth’s feel-good story. Under interim head coach Preston Spradlin, the Eagles had won seven of their last eight games and four in a row entering Thursday night’s game at Tennessee State.

Complicating Morehead’s NCAA tourney hopes is that MSU is in the OVC East with Belmont (12-1 in the league). In the Ohio Valley Conference, the division winners get byes into the semifinals in the league tournament, an advantage Belmont will likely deny Morehead State.

Murray State (13-13, 7-5 OVC) has a mediocre record but the Racers are only a half-game behind Tennessee-Martin (8-5) in the OVC West. Winning the West would mean Murray needs only win two games in the league tourney to advance to the NCAA Tournament.

Barring a miracle, Eastern Kentucky (10-17, 3-9 OVC going into Thursday’s game at Belmont) is looking to next year.

Unless it makes a late-season charge into Conference-USA’s top four, Western Kentucky (12-13, 6-6 C-USA going into Thursday’s meeting with Middle Tennessee State) will have to win four games in the league tourney to make the NCAAs.

WKU fans have spent this winter dreaming about next season when Rick Stansbury’s ballyhooed recruiting class of 7-foot Mitchell Robinson (No. 6 in Rivals 150), 6-4 Josh Anderson (No. 43) and 6-2 Taveion Hollingsworth (2016 Kentucky Sweet Sixteen MVP) join the Hilltoppers.

Paul Laurence Dunbar senior Taveion Hollingsworth became Lexington's all-time leading scorer in boys' basketball after connecting on this jumper with 3:26 left in the third quarter of Dunbar's game at West Jessamine on Feb. 14, 2017.

It likely won’t be 2017, but maybe 2018 is the year when Kentucky puts five teams — UK, U of L, NKU, WKU, an in-state OVC team — in an NCAA Tournament for the first time ever.