Journey to the Tourney: UK’s March Madness history
Given the ebbs and flows — frequently in the same game — that marked Kentucky’s performances this season, UK might seem a difficult team to assess.
Not so, ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi said Wednesday.
“Well, it’s probably not as uncommon as we think,” Lunardi said of UK’s inconsistent play. “You know, the Jekyll-and-Hyde deal in college basketball. We’re still talking about college-aged kids, and I think we know from our own experience that they tend to be unpredictable.
“So maybe the surprise is that it doesn’t happen more often.”
Rather than flawed by inconsistency, Lunardi suggested that Kentucky might be a victim of its own lofty standard. Anything short of total domination can seem to be a shortcoming.
“I think they are kind of playing in their own shadow in some respects, because most people expect them to be a 1 seed, to be the 800-pound gorilla in the SEC and to always be a Final Four favorite,” Lunardi said on a teleconference.
“So this year, when they’re just what I would call ‘regular good,’ people seem to think that something’s wrong. They’re going to be, at worst, a 3 seed. They’re going to be favored at least into the second weekend. After that, it’s always 50-50 games.”
By normal standards, Kentucky’s “regular good” is plenty good and easy to appreciate.
“I don’t really think they’re that hard to assess if you just look at it outside the prism of what Kentucky is supposed to do versus most people who would take a 2 or 3 seed in a given seeding,” Lunardi said.
The chairman of the Selection Committee, Michigan State Athletics Director Mark Hollis, downplayed the importance of consistent play in assessing teams for the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s not necessarily the most deserving teams,” Hollis said on another teleconference. “It’s the best teams based upon results. ... Beyond (Kentucky), teams have ebbs and flows throughout the year. We go through and we observe all of those.”
Kentucky’s inconsistent play might seem like fodder for a debate about whether the metaphorical glass is half full or half empty.
But UK Coach John Calipari sounded this week as if his glass wasn’t half anything. It was overflowing with positive developments.
On his radio show Monday, Calipari said Malik Monk, Bam Adebayo, Dominique Hawkins, Derek Willis and Mychal Mulder were playing better than they ever had.
Answering his own rhetorical questions, Calipari answered in the affirmative about whether UK could win without peak performances from De’Aaron Fox or Isaiah Briscoe or Monk or Willis.
“We just can’t win if they all are not giving us something,” Calipari said. “If someone on our team isn’t right, we can win anyway.”
Other upbeat proclamations included Kentucky showing it can win when leading or trailing by a lot, with post play or when an opponent forces a grind-it-out, possession-by-possession game.
“I’m in a better frame of mind than I was with the 38-0 team,” Calipari said. “I really am. I don’t know what that means because there are things that can happen out of your control.”
Tennessee Coach Rick Barnes endorsed the idea of a coach speaking with can-do belief going into the postseason.
“You got to feel those positive waves and hope your players can ride them,” Barnes said.
Kentucky will take a season-best eight-game winning streak to the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
Barnes and other SEC coaches emphasized that the optimism must be genuine.
“One thing you can’t do, if things aren’t going well, is act like, ‘We’re OK,’” Barnes said. “Because they’re not OK. They expect us to be honest with them.”
Calipari hasn’t been all positive. On the same radio show, he said several players needed to improve.
Alabama has been, if anything, more inconsistent than Kentucky, at least in terms of victory and defeat. Coach Avery Johnson cited two games in a four-day period in early February. The Tide gave up 15 three-point baskets in a home loss to archrival Auburn, then won a four-overtime thriller at No. 19 South Carolina (the program’s first road victory over a ranked opponent since 2004).
“We’ve had some performances this year in SEC play where you’ll go, ‘Wow, we can be a pretty good team,’” Johnson said. “And then we’ll have a couple of clunkers where maybe I didn’t necessarily see that coming, and didn’t really recognize my team.”
Ironically, perhaps, Johnson emphasized the importance of consistency in the message and mood any coach conveys.
“If you’ve been a nice guy all year, and all of a sudden you’re trying to be more demanding, that might make your team tight,” he said. “Or if you’ve been too demanding all year, and all of a sudden you have a smile on your face 100 percent of the time, you’re just a little cuddly coach, that might make them a little too relaxed.”
When: Wednesday through Sunday
Where: Bridgestone Arena in Nashville
UK’s first game: 1 p.m. (EST) Friday vs. Tennessee or Georgia (SEC Network)