No stranger to criticizing the NCAA Tournament selection committee this time of year, University of Kentucky Coach John Calipari found plenty of ammunition in Sunday’s bracket reveal.
Projected by many as a No. 3 seed after sharing the Southeastern Conference regular-season title and defeating co-champion Texas A&M for the league tournament crown, the Wildcats were instead given the No. 4 seed in the East Region.
The Aggies, who UK had beaten in overtime just a couple of hours before the selection show began, got that No. 3 seed instead.
Calipari’s Cats also won’t be playing too close to home in this NCAA Tournament. The road to a third consecutive Final Four will have to go through Des Moines and Philadelphia, not Louisville, which is hosting the South Region.
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“Where are we playing?” Calipari facetiously asked reporters at his house after the selection show.
“Des Moines,” one responded
“I thought it was Anchorage,” Calipari replied.
The UK coach also noted that the Cats, one of a handful of teams to play a conference title game Sunday, were scheduled for a Thursday game to open the NCAA Tournament. He suggested the team just leave for Iowa then and there, maybe play the game on the interstate somewhere along the way.
“That’s how it is,” Calipari said. “Every year, the same. You look at some other teams and they got a great path. And we got this.”
UK will start things off Thursday at about 9:40 p.m., against the Stony Brook Seawolves, who won the America East league title and defeated Vermont in Saturday’s tournament championship game.
Stony Brook (26-6) is led by 6-foot-8, 255-pound senior forward Jameel Warney, who is averaging 19.8 points, 10.7 rebounds and 3.0 blocks this season and dropped 43 points in the tournament title game.
If the Cats can get past the Seawolves, a possible matchup with Big Ten champion Indiana awaits in the second round. The fifth-seeded Hoosiers (25-7) will play Southern Conference champion Chattanooga (29-5) in the first round.
That’s how it is. Every year, the same. You look at some other teamsand they got a great path. And we got this.
Calipari recently praised the coaching job of Indiana’s Tom Crean, who led the Hoosiers to a league title despite the loss of star player James Blackmon Jr., who suffered a season-ending knee injury in December. Crean’s squad has won 19 of its past 23 games.
“And they’re a five seed,” Calipari said. “I betcha he’s happy.”
Another traditional rival, North Carolina, is the No. 1 seed in the East, and the Cats could play them in the Sweet 16 in Philadelphia if they survive the first two rounds. Xavier and West Virginia are the top seeds in the bottom half of the East bracket.
Calipari said he spoke to Crean three weeks ago and told the Indiana coach then that the NCAA selection committee would pit the two teams against each other. They had played in every season since 1970 until the series was discontinued four years ago.
Calipari also said he knew West Virginia, which eliminated UK in the 2010 tournament, would be in the Cats’ bracket. He figured No. 1 overall seed Kansas would be, too, but it was the Tar Heels instead.
“I bet you they’ll try to switch over and put the Warriors in there,” he said, referring to the best team in the NBA.
Calipari — and pretty much everyone else with an Internet connection — knew the Wildcats’ seeding fate before it was officially announced on the CBS selection show. The full bracket was leaked before the two-hour program was halfway finished, and Calipari immediately questioned the difference in seeds for UK and Texas A&M, which won the only regular-season matchup between the teams after Wildcats freshman Isaac Humphries was called for a game-changing technical foul for celebrating after pulling down what seemed to be the game-winning rebound.
Calipari said he had already spoken to SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey, asking why the league should play a title game on Sunday if it’s meaningless to the selection committee.
NCAA committee chair Joe Castiglione was asked about the seeding decision Sunday night, and he noted that the teams split their two meetings and Texas A&M had more victories over top-50 teams (according to the RPI) than UK did this season.
“In the case of Kentucky, by winning the SEC championship today, they picked up only their third top-50 win,” Castiglione said. “They had five losses to non-tournament teams, four of which were ranked below 90. So that was part of the consideration when talking about Kentucky and where they were placed on the seed line.
“In the case of Texas A&M, they had five top-50 wins to Kentucky’s three. Again, close call. But something that distinguishes one team from the other.”
While Calipari stared at a TV screen in an adjoining room, his players were gathered in the UK coach’s living room watching on a big screen over the fireplace. There was no reaction when they were announced as a No. 4 seed. There was no immediate discussion of their tough path out of the East Region.
Perhaps some of them had seen the leaked bracket and also already knew where they were headed. Junior forward Marcus Lee said afterward that he didn’t even know about the leak, and he wasn’t sure if his teammates did either. He chalked the subdued reaction up to exhaustion from winning another SEC Tournament. And he said the Cats are just happy to have more games ahead of them.
Calipari said he wouldn’t necessarily use what he saw as a slight from the selection committee as motivation to fuel his players’ fire. He said he’d ask them what they thought about it, and proceed from there.
“They’ll probably say, ‘I don’t care. Is there a sandwich anywhere? I’m hungry.’ If they don’t care, truly, I don’t care. Let’s go play the games.”
Kentucky’s tournament opener
KENTUCKY VS. STONY BROOK
East Regional at Des Moines, Iowa
When: Thursday, about 9:40 p.m.
Records: Kentucky 26-8, Stony Brook 26-6
ABOUT STONY BROOK
Location: Stony Brook, N.Y.
School colors: Red, Blue and Grey
Head coach: Steve Pikiell (192-155 in 11th season at Stony Brook and overall)
Conference: America East (Stony Brook won the regular season and tournament championships)
All-time series: Kentucky leads 1-0 (UK beat Stony Brook 62-52 on Nov. 27, 2007, in Lexington)
Common opponents with Kentucky: Stony Brook lost at Vanderbilt 79-72 in OT on Nov. 19 and won at NJIT 83-61 on Dec. 28. The Seawolves split games with Albany, winning 69-63 at home on Jan. 22 and losing 82-70 on the road Feb. 17.
Other notable games this season: Jameel Warney scored 43 points as Stony Brook beat Vermont 80-74 to win the America East Tournament championship Saturday. Stony Brook lost 67-66 at Western Kentucky on Nov. 21 and 86-61 at Notre Dame on Dec. 8.