UK Men's Basketball

A deep run in the NCAA Tournament? UK’s inexperience does not improve the odds.

Photo slideshow: Defense, Gabriel's 3-point barrage send UK past Alabama

Wenyen Gabriel shot 7-for-7 on threes and matched his career high with 23 points, sending Kentucky past Collin Sexton and Alabama 86-63 Saturday in the Southeastern Conference Tournament semifinals.
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Wenyen Gabriel shot 7-for-7 on threes and matched his career high with 23 points, sending Kentucky past Collin Sexton and Alabama 86-63 Saturday in the Southeastern Conference Tournament semifinals.

Selection Sunday invites the college basketball world to speculate on what teams can make deep runs in the NCAA Tournament. More so than ever, experience must be considered in projecting Kentucky’s shelf life this year.

When trying to assess the value of experience in postseason play, Kentucky’s game against Wisconsin in the 2015 Final Four comes immediately to mind.

Bo Ryan, the now retired Wisconsin coach, used center Frank Kaminsky to show how a player — and by inference a team — can evolve over time.

“Came in as Napoleon Dynamite,” Ryan said of Kaminsky. “Left as George Clooney.”

This season, as almost always, Kentucky has players capable of a dynamite performance. But UK players typically do not choose to have the luxury of time. And as Wisconsin reminded three years ago, experience becomes increasingly important the deeper a team advances in the NCAA Tournament.

This applied even to the 2015 Kentucky team, which won its first 38 games heading into the Final Four game against Wisconsin. The Cats were so deep with freshmen and sophomores that Coach John Calipari used a platoon system of substitution to try to get playing time for all of his players.

“We knew they had lottery picks, McDonald’s All-Americans, talent up and down their roster,” said Josh Gosser, a guard for the Badgers that season. “But we also knew they didn’t have what we had. That is great leadership, great experience and composure under these situations.”

Besides contributing to on-court steadiness, experience also helped ease Wisconsin players’ minds about playing mighty Kentucky.

“If I was playing a 38-0 team as a freshman or sophomore, I’d have probably been a little intimidated and a little scared,” Gosser said. “But as a senior, as most of us were, it was more excitement. It was what an opportunity.

“I’ll tell you, we were extremely confident. I know that sounds crazy because they were 38-0 and one of the best teams to ever play college basketball. But we had played them the year before, and watched them on film and were extremely confident we could exploit some matchups and really keep it close and down the stretch utilize what we had.”

Wisconsin lost to Kentucky in the 2014 Final Four as Aaron Harrison continued his streak of clutch three-point shooting. Wisconsin players heard about a possible rematch as early as the fall of 2014.

“Kaminsky, he’s not a bashful kid,” Ryan said. “Back in October he said he wanted to play Kentucky again. He got his wish.”

The Badgers were starry-eyed in the 2014 Final Four. They had a different mindset in 2015.

“That next year, we just felt we belonged,” Gosser said. “Like no doubt in our minds we were one of the top four teams in the country.”

The difference in experience showed itself most memorably when Kentucky lost the ball on two straight shot-clock violations down the stretch.

“They were almost looking around wondering who was going to make a play, who was going to make a shot,” Gosser said. “Kind of almost changed the way they played the whole course of the game. That was something we didn’t do as an experienced team. Now, we did in the past, maybe early in the season. But we just had so much experience and composure.”

Of course, Wisconsin lost to another freshman-led team, Duke, in the national championship game. But that did not shake Gosser’s belief in experience. He said it helps in each step in a player’s development: High school to college, non-conference to conference, regular season to postseason.

“So every step along the way, it’s a new game,” Gosser said. “It’s a new speed. Everyone has all the film on you they can get.

“So it really is a lot about experience.”

Credit to Cal

Perhaps John Calipari gets at least partial credit for the $35 million renovation of Scottrade Center. It seems his complaints about the facility during the 2014 NCAA Tournament helped spur the upgrade.

UK fans will recall Kentucky played Kansas State and then Wichita State there in 2014. As an eighth-seed, UK got the less desirable locker room against the Shockers. The story spread that the crammed quarters led to Calipari having to retreat to a shower stall to make phone calls.

Frank Viverito, the president of the St. Louis Sports Commission, takes it from there.

“He apparently had some business to take care of, some calls to make,” Viverito said of Calipari. “Whether or not he actually had to make them from a shower stall, the point was made that the accommodations were not up to par. It wasn’t the impression we should have been putting forth.”

St. Louis officials had already planned to upgrade the Scottrade Center. Calipari’s unfavorable review sped up the process.

The $35 million renovation included a new scoreboard over center court and upgrades to wifi, lighting and the sound system. Another $35 million is planned for further upgrades this summer.

As for the SEC Tournament, Viverito said on Wednesday, “all locker rooms should be the same this time around, and hopefully they will be adequate.”

Why?

After UK lost at Florida last weekend, John Calipari expressed his dislike of the SEC Tournament with a question: “Why are we doing this for?”

SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey offered several reasons why.

“I think it is a destination for the season,” he said. “It is a rallying point, a focal point for our basketball and our basketball teams.”

The SEC Tournament can serve as preparation for the neutral site-condensed nature of games in the NCAA Tournament, Sankey said.

It’s also a promotional tool. Playing in St. Louis this year “is a very clear indicator that Missouri is SEC country, as we like to say,” Sankey said.

As part of that effort, the SEC will hold its gymnastics championships and softball tournament in Missouri later this year. Texas A&M has played host to the SEC’s swimming and diving and indoor track and field championships.

And, yes, the SEC Tournament is also a revenue source.

Sankey declined to say, specifically, how much money is generated. “In the grand scheme of things, it’s meaningful, but not enormous,” he said.

Why (part 2)?

Never mind the SEC and other so-called Power 5 conferences, ESPN analyst Jay Bilas questioned why mid-major leagues play postseason tournaments.

“We’re giving a chance to everybody to sort of go into the (NCAA) tournament and represent the league with no chance to win,” he said. “And you want your best team every year competing.”

Bilas noted that the Big East did not invite teams at the bottom of the standings to play in its postseason tournament. “And nobody missed the fact they weren’t there,” he said.

Former Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese, who now works as a consultant for the SEC, agreed with Bilas.

“I never understood why these so-called lesser leagues have tournaments,” he said. “They play all year. They determine who the best team is. Now, they have a postseason tournament that doesn’t generate any revenue. And their best team gets exposed or gets upset. And as a result, their league is represented by someone who is not the best team.”

Geographical footnote

No matter the results of games, Commissioner Greg Sankey pointed out how this year’s SEC Tournament was distinctive.

“It’s the first time in the history of the tournament, the tournament has been played west of the Mississippi (River),” he said before adding with a smile, “Eight blocks west, but we’re still west of the Mississippi. So we have expanded our geography based on that measure.”

Forget the sabbath

One of John Calipari’s complaints about the SEC Tournament is that the game results do not have great bearing on NCAA Tournament seeding and bracketing. This seemed especially true in 2016 when Kentucky defeated Texas A&M in the SEC Tournament finals, then the Selection Committee gave A&M a better seed.

Calipari has an ally in ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi, who quipped, “a lot of history suggests the cable (television) goes out in the committee room on Sunday.”

Must-see TV

ESPN said that last weekend’s Duke-North Carolina game drew the largest audience of any college basketball telecast this season. The game had an audience of 3,369,000 viewers.

Here are the rest of the top seven games with the highest ratings:

2. Michigan State at Ohio State (3,305,100).

3. Virginia at Duke (3,042,100).

4. Duke-Michigan State in Champions Classic (3,020,500).

5. Northwestern at Indiana (2,886,400).

6. Kentucky-Kansas in Champions Classic (2,700,600).

7. Duke at North Carolina (2,470,800).

ESPN also re-confirmed the keen interest in college basketball in the Kentucky-Ohio-Indiana triangle. For the 16th straight year, Louisville had the highest rating for college basketball. Cincinnati was fifth and Indianapolis tied for sixth.

Belated happy birthday

To Ed Allin, who lettered for Adolph Rupp in 1946. He celebrated his 94th birthday on March 2.

His nephew, Thomas Allin, said in an email, “At a family holiday function recently, Ed told me he learned every play Coach Rupp ever developed.”

Happy birthday

To Anthony Davis. He turns 25 on Sunday (today). … To former UK Coach Eddie Sutton. He turns 82 on Monday. … To Rashaad Carruth. He turns 36 on Monday. … To former Ole Miss Coach Andy Kennedy. He turns 50 on Tuesday. … To Patrick Patterson. He turns 29 on Wednesday. … To former U of L analyst Jock Sutherland. He turns 90 on Wednesday.

Kentucky guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander talks about the defensive job on Alabama star Collin Sexton, who scored 21 points in UK’s 86-63 win.

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton

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