Gabriel: 'I think we got put in a tough bracket, as usual'
Now’s the time to give John Calipari a little love.
We know you doubted him. (Must confess, I had my doubts, too.) We know you complained. We know you thought there was no way the Kentucky basketball coach could place his young, inconsistent team on the right track in time for March Madness. And then, what do you know, UK jumped up and won the SEC Tournament on Sunday.
And what did Calipari and his Cats get for their trouble?
No love from the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament Selection Committee, that’s what.
Usually an eye-roll is required for Calipari’s running claim that the committee works overtime to find Kentucky the toughest possible draw, but this year the man might have a point.
Tabbed as the No. 5 seed in the South Region, Kentucky will not only start its NCAA Tournament journey way, way out in Boise, Idaho, the Cats must open Thursday against No. 12 seed Davidson (21-11), which won the Atlantic 10 Tournament title by beating 25th-ranked Rhode Island 58-57 on Sunday. The game is set for 7:10 p.m. and will be televised by CBS.
Led by longtime coach Bob McKillop (554 wins over 29 seasons), the North Carolina school has won eight of its last nine games and 11 of its last 13. The two losses? Davidson fell at Rhode Island, then ranked 18th, 72-59 on Feb. 9. Then the Cats lost an epic 117-113 three-overtime game at St. Bonaventure on Feb. 27. That’s it.
Advanced analytics guru Ken Pomeroy ranks Davidson’s offense as the 18th best in the nation. He ranks the Wildcats’ 43rd overall. This is the program’s fourth NCAA tourney berth in the past seven years. Stephen Curry went to Davidson, for heaven’s sakes. And the Wildcats are a 12 seed.
And if Kentucky gets past Davidson, who should be waiting on Saturday? Why another group of Wildcats. The Arizona Wildcats. That’s right, the same Arizona that was No. 3 in the Associated Press preseason poll, that ended up capturing not just the Pacific 12 regular-season title but also the conference tournament championship.
Did we mention that Arizona is coached by Calipari’s good friend Sean Miller, another Pittsburgh native whose teams have won 25-or-more games every season since 2011-12?
And did we mention that the Wildcats boast the probable overall No. 1 NBA Draft pick in center DeAndre Ayton? Last time out, the freshman sensation scored 32 points and grabbed 18 rebounds in Arizona’s 75-61 win over Southern Cal in the finals of the Pac-12 Tournament.
Perhaps Calipari has a paranoia point?
Not that Kentucky is incapable of fighting its way out of Idaho and advancing on to Atlanta, home of the South Region semifinals and finals. Having won seven of their last eight games, the Cats are playing, as Kevin Knox put it Sunday, “our season best right now.”
They proved so Sunday in St. Louis, outlasting tough Tennessee 77-72 for the SEC Tournament title. Tourney MVP Shai Gilgeous-Alexander scored 29 points. Knox added 18. Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones provided big offensive rebound baskets off the bench as UK, the No. 4 seed in a league that earned eight NCAA Tournament bids, won its fourth consecutive conference tournament title.
Better still, the Cats proved they can take a punch. After Tennessee’s 10-2 run to start the second half gave the Vols a 41-38 lead, Kentucky responded with a 14-2 run of its own to go back in front 52-43. When Tennessee led 62-61 with 4:51 left, UK scored seven straight points to take control and ultimately cut down the Scottrade Center nets.
So finally, the team Calipari said needed to first conquer itself, conquered the Vols, who had swept the Cats in the regular season. “We’re growing up,” said Knox, matter of fact.
Surely Calipari deserves much of the credit for that, but now the coach must see if his NCAA newbies are good enough and mature enough to go beat a pair of terrific teams in a far off place. After all, they’d love to prove the NCAA doubters wrong.