John Clay

No trip to Louisville, but Kentucky gets manageable path to Final Four

Coach Cal and the Cats react to Kentucky’s NCAA Tournament draw

University of Kentucky head coach John Calipari and basketball players Reid Travis and Keldon Johnson respond to the NCAA Tournament announcement.
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University of Kentucky head coach John Calipari and basketball players Reid Travis and Keldon Johnson respond to the NCAA Tournament announcement.

Back in April of 1959, two months after John Calipari was born, Fury Records released an R&B single by Wilbert Harrison entitled “Kansas City.” Over 300 recordings by a multitude of various artists later, we of a certain age know the song’s chorus well, “Going to Kansas City/Kansas City here I come.”

And that’s where Calipari and his Kentucky Wildcats are projected to be going as the No. 2 seed in the Midwest Region for a meeting with familiar foe and No. 1 seed North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament at the Sprint Center. That is if the Cats and Tar Heels can avoid the usual land mines planted along the way.

Not that the Cats got a bad Big Dance draw in what could otherwise be known as the ACC Invitational. Three of the tourney’s four top seeds went to that league — Duke as No. 1 in the East, Virginia as No. 1 in the South and North Carolina as No. 1 in the Midwest. (Outlier Gonzaga is No. 1 in the West.) Not even Calipari could summon a serious grumble about his team’s seeding or degree of difficulty.

The Cats might not have been given a glide path, but it’s certainly not a bad path. Saturday’s SEC Tournament semifinal loss to Tennessee killed any chance of UK going to South Region site Louisville. And a No. 2 seed seems about right for a 27-6 team that failed to win the SEC regular-season title or its conference tournament. And the Cats’ NCAA journey starts in Jacksonville, Fla., an SEC-friendly local, against Southland Conference champion and No. 15 seed Abilene Christian, also 27-6.

Save a colossal first-round flop, Kentucky then faces the winner of No. 7 seed Wofford and No. 10 seed Seton Hall. Wofford is no Cinderella. On the strength of 20 straight victories, the Terriers are ranked No. 20 in the country. And Seton Hall beat Kentucky 84-83 in overtime at Madison Square Garden in New York way back on Dec. 8. All that aside, look for the Cats to navigate their way out of north Florida right on to Missouri.

We pause now for some geographical trivia: Kentucky hasn’t played basketball in Kansas City since 2005. That was the Guardians Classic in the city’s old Municipal Auditorium, seating capacity 6,000. Tubby Smith’s team split the two games, losing to Iowa in the first round before beating John Beilein and West Virginia in the consolation game. Highlight: Rajon Rondo grabbed 19 rebounds in the loss to Iowa.

Barring upsets, first up in K.C. would be No. 3 seed Houston. Kelvin Sampson’s club started the season 15-0 and 27-1 and was ranked No. 11 in the last AP Top 25. But the Cougars have lost two of their last six, including 69-57 to Cincinnati in the finals of the American Athletic Conference Tournament on Sunday.

In fact, North Carolina might have a much tougher time keeping its Elite Eight calendar date. The good news: The Heels earned a No. 1 seed. The bad news, Carolina could face a red-hot No. 5 seed Auburn, who made 15 three-pointers on Saturday to clobber Tennessee in the SEC title game for the Tigers’ eighth straight win. Or the Heels could face No. 4 seed Kansas. That’s right, Kansas. In Kansas City. That’s Kansas City, Mo. Less than an hour from Lawrence, the home of Rock Chalk Jayhawk.

If that doesn’t seem fair, then welcome to the NCAA Tournament. All’s fair in love, war and the Selection Committee S-Curve. It’s survive and advance, no matter where or who you play. “We’re just worried about Abilene Christian,” said Calipari on Sunday night while yucking it up with the talking heads on ESPN.

Meanwhile, over on CBS, analyst Seth Davis picked Kentucky to reach the Final Four along with Duke, Gonzaga and Purdue with Duke beating Kentucky in the finale. Clark Kellogg picked Duke, Gonzaga, Virginia and (yikes) Houston. My Final Four: Duke, Virginia, Kentucky and Texas Tech.

Hey, it’s March Madness. UK’s Big Dance Goal No. 1, make the song, “Kansas City, here we come.”

Thursday

Kentucky vs. Abilene Christian

7:10 p.m. in first round of the NCAA Tournament in Jacksonville, Fla. (CBS-27)

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