UK Men's Basketball

Barnhart discusses Kentucky’s NCAA draw and fans’ threats against referee

Mitch Barnhart spoke Friday about his work on the NCAA Selection Committee and reacted to some Kentucky fans’ treatment of referee John Higgins.
Mitch Barnhart spoke Friday about his work on the NCAA Selection Committee and reacted to some Kentucky fans’ treatment of referee John Higgins. Herald-Leader

Kentucky putting the mad in March Madness has become an annual rite (or, to hear UK complaints, an annual wrong) of the NCAA Tournament. Wrong seed. Wrong site. Wrong days of the week for games.

Having just completed his first year on the Selection Committee, UK Director of Athletics Mitch Barnhart vouched for the panel’s good-faith effort to get the bracket right.

When asked Friday if Kentucky had been treated fairly, Barnhart said, “Yeah. Very fairly.

“I can honestly look at my basketball coach and our team and people on my staff and our fans and say we were treated very fairly.”

Habitual NCAA critic and UK Coach John Calipari called attention to the teams in the South Region and seemed to suggest it was made especially challenging. Besides No. 2 seed Kentucky, the other top teams were a who’s who of college basketball: No. 1 seed North Carolina (the eventual national champion) and No. 3 seed UCLA.

Barnhart said the committee was “incredibly diligent” in trying to make the regions competitively balanced. Alternative paths for Kentucky might have involved defending national champion Villanova and Duke in the East Region or Kansas and Louisville in the Midwest or Gonzaga and Arizona (plus inconvenient travel for UK fans) in the West.

There is no easy path (through the NCAA Tournament). You’re going to play someone. So if you’re expecting something less than that, that’s probably not reality.

Mitch Barnhart

By definition, advancement to the Sweet 16 likely means a game against a team ranked in the top 15 or so, Barnhart said. Elite Eight means a top-10 opponent.

“There is no easy path,” Barnhart said. “You’re going to play someone. So if you’re expecting something less than that, that’s probably not reality.”

Of course, once Kentucky lost to North Carolina in the South Region finals, complaints shifted from the Selection Committee to referee John Higgins. Some UK fans reportedly threatened to kill Higgins and flooded the website of his roofing business with fictitious negative reviews.

The UK athletics department issued a statement asking fans to refrain from such actions. Critics said the response was tepid.

“If they know us, they know our heartbeat,” Barnhart said when asked if the statement was too weak. “We don’t condone that.”

Barnhart said UK had “one of the classiest fan bases in college basketball.” The death threats and postings on the website came from “a very, very small number of people that were passionately upset about Kentucky losing, and felt their team had been wronged. And I don’t think anybody at this university or this department or this basketball area would condone any of that.

“And I appreciate our fans’ passion … , but certainly don’t condone that. That’s not who we want to be. We lost the game. Some things didn’t go our way we hoped would go our way. We need to accept that and be able to move on.”

Longtime referee Don Rutledge called for UK to revoke tickets from any fans found to have made death threats to Higgins.

“I don’t want to get into policy making,” Barnhart said. “I’d rather our fans take the tone: Let’s be Kentucky. We’ve been good. We’ve done it right. Let’s not be somebody we don’t want to be.”

I appreciate our fans’ passion … , but certainly don’t condone (threatening a referee). That’s not who we want to be. We lost the game. Some things didn’t go our way we hoped would go our way. We need to accept that and be able to move on.

Mitch Barnhart

Barnhart said Higgins’ performance in the South Region finals was part of the evaluation process that led to him being selected to call a game in the Final Four. Barnhart said he removed himself from the evaluation process of the Kentucky-North Carolina game.

Barnhart, who will be on the Selection Committee for four more years, described the seeding and bracketing process as like “drinking out of a fire hose.”

There is seemingly a flood of information to digest and evaluate, he said. Barnhart said he’d watch three or four games a night on television, downloaded on an iPad or in person.

“It got to the point there were two or three TVs in the house, each would have a different game,” Barnhart said. “I’d float back and forth from game to game.”

For those who complained that Barnhart did not ensure optimum conditions for Kentucky’s advancement, that was not possible. Per committee rules, he had to leave the room whenever Kentucky was discussed.

As for other Southeastern Conference teams under consideration, he could provide objective information: for instance, who won what game, where it was played, what players did not play because of injury. But he could not offer an opinion.

The committee weighs four sets of metrics in addition to the old-fashioned method of watching teams play.

“It’s not an exact science,” Barnhart said of the process of making an NCAA Tournament bracket. “If it was an exact science, you don’t need the committee.”

As for the committee members’ treatment of Kentucky, Barnhart said, “I think they go a long way to care about our program.”

Because Kentucky is Kentucky?

“No,” Barnhart said. “The tournament is important. I don’t think they worry about one program. What they worry about is getting it right.”

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton

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