UK Men's Basketball

NCAA draws up bumpy road for Cats

One must be able to ace exams to succeed in college. The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee has potentially set up a doozy of a series of final examinations for John Calipari and his kiddie Cats.

For Kentucky to make it back to the Final Four for the first time since 1998, the freshman-heavy Wildcats are facing graduate-school-level tests.

As the No. 1 seed in the East Region, Kentucky should be in scant danger of becoming the first top seed ever to lose to a No. 16 when it faces East Tennessee State Thursday in New Orleans.

After that, the exams John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Co. must pass to get to Indianapolis figure to be downright grueling.

Big Test No. 1: Texas Talent. When and if Kentucky makes round number two, the foe likely to be waiting is Texas (which will be favored to eliminate Wake Forest in round one).

That's the same Texas that rose to No. 1 in the country in January. The same Texas that was considered to be one part of a Big Three with Kansas and Kentucky when it came to the most physically gifted teams in the country.

Since those heady days, Rick Barnes' Longhorns have stumbled badly, losing nine times since Jan. 17.

Chemistry issues and shaky point guard play have messed with Texas. Still, this is a roster with both size (6-foot-10 behemoth Dexter Pittman) and star power (senior forward Damion James; hotshot freshman Avery Bradley).

For the Longhorns, beating Kentucky would represent a chance to redeem their lost season in one dramatic swoop.

Big Test No. 2: Tempo. If UK wins its first two, it is almost certain Kentucky will face in the round of 16 a team capable of slowing the pace and forcing the fast-dancing Cats to survive a slow waltz.

Whether that opponent is No. 4 seed Wisconsin, No. 5 Temple or No. 12 Cornell almost doesn't matter.

My guess is that it will be Atlantic 10 Tournament champ Temple. Coach Fran Dunphy's Owls are allowing only 56 points a game, have a victory over Villanova, and have a crafty backcourt featuring Ryan Brooks and Juan Fernandez. For a team like Kentucky that is playing two freshman guards, this would not be an easy matchup.

Big Test No. 3: Big East grit. If seeds hold, Kentucky's foe in the region finals would be big, bad Bob Huggins and West Virginia.

To my eye test, the Mountaineers were more deserving of a No. 1 seed than one of the teams (Duke) that got one.

WVU enters the Dance on a wave of momentum after riding a week of clutch shooting by Da'Sean Butler to the Big East Tournament championship.

With the 6-7 Butler joined by 6-9 Devin Ebanks and 6-8 Kevin Jones, WVU has a rugged front line that is among the best in the country.

The Mountaineers (27-6) are about as tested as a team can be. They enter NCAA play with victories over Ohio State, Villanova and Georgetown (two) on their résumé.

Of course, Huggins' record as an NCAA Tournament coach is spotty at best. This, however, may be the best team he's coached since the 2000 Cincinnati team whose season was marred by Kenyon Martin's pre-NCAA tourney broken leg.

Kentucky (32-2) enters its "final exam" off its near-miraculous overtime escape against Mississippi State in the finals of Sunday's SEC Tournament.

Was winning in such a way — sending the game into overtime with a deliberately missed foul shot that led to the game-tying bucket a millisecond before the final horn — a positive sign of tournament toughness?

Or will it leave the youthful Cats with a false sense of security going into the only tournament that actually matters? Time will tell.

If the "tests" turn out as projected and Kentucky passes them all to return to college basketball's final weekend, the Cats will have shown one thing beyond any doubt:

They can do advanced work.

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