Mark Story

For once, bracket chaos breaks UK’s way — and Cats fans need not apologize for that

Kentucky players looking forward to Sweet 16 in Catlanta

After win over Buffalo, Kentucky players talk about getting to South Regional semifinal Thursday night in Atlanta.
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After win over Buffalo, Kentucky players talk about getting to South Regional semifinal Thursday night in Atlanta.

The national perception is that the basketball gods have gifted the Kentucky Wildcats with an easy-glide path to the school’s 18th men’s hoops Final Four appearance.

On Thursday night in Philips Arena in Atlanta, men’s NCAA Tournament South Region No. 5 seed Kentucky will meet No. 9 Kansas State around 9:37 p.m., and No. 7 Nevada will play No. 11 Loyola (Chicago) at 7:07 p.m. with berths in the Elite Eight at stake.

Via Twitter, Dick Vitale declared the South Region the “Kentucky Invitational.” Jay Bilas says that UK, along with Duke, has been the clear winner in this year’s bracket chaos.

There’s ample evidence that supports Kentucky’s good fortune.

1.) In the first two rounds of the NCAA tourney, the South Region lost its No. 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6 seeds.

2.) According to the NCAA, that makes the 2018 South the first region since the NCAA tourney started seeding teams in 1979 in which a top four seed did not reach the round of 16.

3.) If Kentucky makes the Final Four, it will have traveled the softest path — based on the average seed of opponents faced — to a berth in the national semifinals of any team in the past 10 NCAA tourneys.

4.) To get to the round of 16, UK vanquished No. 12 seed Davidson and No. 13 Buffalo. If UK goes to the Final Four by beating No. 9 Kansas State and No. 7 Nevada, the average seed of the teams Kentucky beat to reach the national semifinals would be 10.25.

Kentucky has made the tournament 56 times, the most in NCAA history. But that's not where its superiority in the tournament record books stops.

5.) Should John Calipari’s Wildcats get to San Antonio by besting Kansas State and No. 11 Loyola, the average seed of the teams Kentucky beat to reach the national semfinals would be 11.25.

6.) You have to go all the way back to Kansas in 2008 to find a team that reached the national semifinals by facing a less rigorous path.

7.) Bill Self’s Jayhawks advanced to the Final Four that year by beating the No. 16, 8, 12 and 10 seeds — an average of 11.5.

As national college basketball analysts and rival fan bases have begun to point out Kentucky’s apparent good fortune, there has seemed a certain defensiveness among some UK backers.

Actually, when people say the South Region bracket has broken in a remarkably favorable manner for Kentucky, the reply Cats fans should deliver is:

Isn’t that great?

It’s not Kentucky’s fault that South Region No. 1 seed Virginia melted down in historic fashion; that No. 2 Cincinnati and its charmless coach, Mick Cronin, blew a 22-point, second-half lead; that Sister Jean’s Loyola magic took down No. 3 Tennessee; nor that No. 4 Arizona no-showed the NCAA tourney.

Across many decades, the hand of basketball destiny has at times swung rather profoundly against Kentucky.

Shai vs Buffalo
Kentucky guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (22) averaged 23 points a game in the Wildcats’ NCAA Tournament victories over Davidson and Buffalo last week. Alex Slitz

UK may have lost the 1969-70 NCAA championship when a car wreck sidelined star guard Mike Casey in the summer prior to that season with a broken leg.

The Cats may have lost the 1996-97 NCAA title when a torn ACL sidelined leading scorer Derek Anderson in January.

Standout guard Keith Bogans’ high ankle sprain in the NCAA tourney round of 16 — in a game that would be Kentucky’s 26th win in a row — may have doomed UK’s chance to claim the 2002-03 NCAA crown.

This year, maybe the chaos that has beset the South Region is the hoops gods’ way of evening out some of those bad breaks.

Of course, it’s also possible the “crazy South” will produce another shocker at Kentucky’s expense.

At this point, if UK doesn’t make the Final Four, it is going to be viewed as a rather substantial opportunity missed.

Yet if UK is to move through Atlanta and make it to San Antonio, I’ll predict that at least one of the two games the Cats will have to win will be hanging in the balance until well after the final television timeout.

As for that 2008 Kansas team whose path to the Final Four, based on seeding, was even easier than what shapes up for Kentucky this season, remember this:

Today, no one much recalls how the Jayhawks reached the 2008 Final Four.

Everyone remembers — looking at you, Mario Chalmers — what they did when they got there.

Kentucky guard Hamidou Diallo talks about his 22-point, eight-rebound performance in UK’s 95-75 win over Buffalo in the NCAA Tournament on Saturday.

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