It’s all starting to feel strangely familiar.
It’s all starting to feel like 2011.
Heading into the 2011 NCAA Tournament, the Kentucky Wildcats were a basketball team that had suffered its ups and downs in the regular season, that had trouble winning on the road, that boasted a brilliant point guard in Brandon Knight, and that put it all together late to play its best basketball of the season and win the SEC Tournament.
In the 2011 NCAA Tournament, Kentucky was the No. 4 seed in the East Region.
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Now fast forward to this year, 2015-16 season, when the Kentucky Wildcats have been a basketball team that suffered its ups and downs, that had trouble winning on the road, that boasts a brilliant point guard in Tyler Ulis, and that put it all together late to play its best basketball of the season and win the SEC Tournament.
Now, for the 2016 NCAA Tournament, Kentucky is the No. 4 seed in the East Region, where the Cats will open play Thursday against No. 13 seed Stony Brook in Des Moines, Iowa.
Did we happen to mention that the 2011 Cats made it all the way to the Final Four?
In a wide, wide open year in college basketball, this 2016 team can do the same. It proved that again Sunday afternoon at Bridgestone Arena, finding a way to out-tough Texas A&M 82-77 in overtime to avenge a February loss to the Aggies and take home the conference tournament title.
Ditto five years ago when Kentucky avenged a regular-season loss at Florida by beating the Gators 70-54 in the tournament title game. The selection committee still awarded the losing Gators a higher seed (No. 2) than the underappreciated Cats. Here we are again. Texas A&M is a No. 3 seed. UK is a No. 4, as John Calipari predicted earlier in the day.
“My guess is we’ll be a four seed,” said the Kentucky coach after the SEC finals. “Now you all will say, ‘You should be a three seed.’ They were picked before the game. If we’re a four seed, it was picked before the game.”
Long-standing conspiracy theorists, Kentucky fans surely believe most pairings were done in advance. Big Blue Nation believes committee members burn the midnight oil finding ways to put Louisville and Kentucky in the same bracket. This year, Indiana is the new Louisville.
The Big Ten regular-season champion Hoosiers are the No. 5 seed in the East. It just so happens that UK and IU no longer play their once-annual border war game. Yet if the seeds hold, old friends Calipari and Indiana Coach Tom Crean will face each other in a second-round matchup in Des Moines.
In 2011, UK beat No. 5 seed West Virginia and another Calipari friend in Bob Huggins to reach the Sweet 16 in Newark. This year, the Sweet 16 landing spot would be just across the New Jersey border in Philadelphia. Five years ago, UK had to beat Big Ten champ and No. 1 seed Ohio State. This year, UK would probably have to get past ACC champ and No. 1 seed North Carolina.
Now you all will say, “You should be a three seed.” They were picked beforethe game. If we’re a four seed, it was picked before the game.
Kentucky Coach John Calipari
The Cats are capable. They were an offensive machine in the Music City, producing ridiculous offensive efficiency numbers — an astronomical 1.451 against Alabama; a 1.447 against Georgia on Saturday — while making 32 of 67 three-pointers for the three tournament games for 47.8 percent. Stats head Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted numbers rank UK as the best offensive team in the nation.
The fly in the 2016 ointment is defense. UK’s defensive numbers rank 70th nationally, according to Pomeroy. Calipari’s 2011 team ranked 15th in that same category. It had a stopper in DeAndre Liggins. By season’s end, it had mastered the concepts of team defense.
“We broke down a lot on defense which we’re going to work on,” said Ulis after scoring a career-high 30 points. “Just focusing, paying attention, stop fouling. It’s just staying focused the entire game, all 40 minutes, on what we need to do.”
That’s what the 2011 Cats did, beating North Carolina in the East Region finals to earn the trip to the Final Four in — you’re never going to be believe this — Houston, Texas.
Where’s the 2016 Final Four? You got it.