You’re already booked for San Antonio, right? Atlanta’s NCAA South Region should be a Kentucky cakewalk. Everyone says so. Of the South survivors, UK is the best seed. It has the talent. It has the tradition. Final Four, here come the Cats.
Not so fast, my fiends. Cincinnati made that mistake. Or at least the University of Cincinnati bookstore got ahead of itself, printing Sweet 16 T-shirts and placing them on sale a few hours before — that’s right, before not after — its beloved Bearcats played Nevada on Sunday night. Not smart. Up 22 in the second half, Cincinnati spit the bit and slumped home as Nevada advanced. Lesson learned.
Yes, Kentucky is the pick to win the South Region. Yes, John Calipari’s club is playing its best basketball. Yes, fortuitous upsets have aided the Cats’ NCAA cause. That said, sweeping the South Region this weekend to reach next week’s Final Four might not be as easy as some suggest.
Three reasons why not:
1. Kansas State presents a pair of problems.
Eight of Kentucky’s 10 losses were to teams whose adjusted tempo ranked 150 or slower among Division I’s 351 teams. Kansas State likes it slow. Very slow. The Wildcats from Manhattan rank 303rd in adjusted tempo. They won’t repeat the mistake Buffalo made Saturday by trying to run with Kentucky. Kansas State wants to walk, not run.
Plus, Bruce Weber’s club may be getting its top scorer back Thursday. Dean Wade, a 6-foot-10 junior, averages 16.5 points per game. He was first-team All-Big 12. He’s also not played a minute in the NCAA Tournament after suffering a stress fracture in his left foot in K-State’s first game of its conference tournament. He’s close to returning. Very close.
“I’d say 98 percent,” said Wade on Sunday when asked his chances of playing against Kentucky on Thursday.
2. Nevada and Loyola-Chicago are destiny’s darlings.
Loyola has Sister Jean, the 98-year-old nun who serves as team chaplain and good luck charm. It’s working. First round, the 11th-seeded Ramblers beat No. 6 seed Miami by two points. Second round, the Ramblers beat No. 3 seed Tennessee by one point.
They have already done one thing Kentucky could not do — beat Florida. On Dec. 6, Loyola won 65-59 in Gainesville. Kentucky lost to Florida twice. In fact, Loyola is 3-0 against Top 50 Sagarin teams with wins over Florida, Miami and Tennessee. The Ramblers have won 12 straight and 19 of their last 20. They’re hot.
Nevada has the Martin twins, Caleb and Cody, transfers from North Carolina State. Caleb averages 18.8 points per game. Cody scored 25 in the win over Cincinnati. Both are 6-foot-7 juniors, part of a veteran club that starts two seniors and three juniors.
While Kentucky is 17th in the latest kenpom ratings, Nevada is 23rd. The Wolf Pack ranks sixth in adjusted offensive efficiency. They’re fourth in turnovers per game, first in turnover percentage. They beat Texas in overtime, then outscored Cincinnati 32-8 over the final 11 minutes. They’re good.
3. After all, Kentucky has lost 10 games
The Cats are a No. 5 seed for a reason. They went 10-8 in the SEC, just as Kansas State went 10-8 in the Big 12. The SEC has two teams left in the Sweet 16; the Big 12 has four. It’s not as if UK is unbeatable. Just three weeks ago, Kentucky lost by 13 at Florida. And it wasn’t that close.
Right here, right now, however, Kentucky is playing well. Those who harp on UK’s easy path out of Boise — beating an 12-seed in Davidson and a 13-seed in Buffalo — ignore the vast improvement Calipari’s rookies have made in a month. This is not the same team that had trouble scoring points, that suffered defensive breakdowns, that didn’t execute at crunch time.
Advancing out of Atlanta won’t be easy, however. Those who think otherwise haven’t been paying close attention to this ridiculous tournament. So far, Kentucky has avoided the upset bug. That doesn’t mean it can’t be bit.
Kentucky vs. Kansas State
What: NCAA Tournament South Region semifinal
When: About 9:37 p.m.
Where: Philips Arena in Atlanta