Mark Story

For Kentucky, playing Duke in NCAA Tournament in Louisville would have drawbacks

John Calipari surprised Zion Williamson didn’t blow out both shoes

Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari talks about Zion Williamson’s injury. The Duke freshman sprained his knee when his Nike shoe blew out during a game against North Carolina. UK basketball players also wear Nike shoes.
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Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari talks about Zion Williamson’s injury. The Duke freshman sprained his knee when his Nike shoe blew out during a game against North Carolina. UK basketball players also wear Nike shoes.

In his March 11 Bracketology, ESPN.com’s Joe Lunardi has Kentucky as the projected top seed in the NCAA Tournament South Region.

For UK, that is the holy grail of 2019 NCAA Tournament placements. It would mean, if the Wildcats win their two opening games, they would have a chance to play in the round of 16 and, potentially, the region finals in the KFC Yum Center in Louisville.

Lunardi projects Duke as the No. 2 seed in the South.

According to an emerging school of thought here in the commonwealth, Kentucky should wish for exactly that scenario when the NCAA tourney pairings are revealed Sunday.

The rationale is that if a healthy Zion Williamson (right knee sprain) returns to the Duke lineup by NCAA tourney time, the Blue Devils are the most talented team in men’s college basketball. Therefore, UK’s best chance to take down the Devils would be within the state boundaries of Kentucky before a partisan Wildcats crowd.

Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski talks about his team after the Blue Devils whipped the Kentucky Wildcats 118-84 in the Champions Classic at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. R.J. Barrett scored 33 points to lead Duke.

Though Kentucky would seem to be at an advantage against any NCAA tourney foe when playing inside the commonwealth, there are substantial drawbacks to the idea that UK should want to have Duke in the South Region with it:

1. To coin a phrase, every time Duke goes on the road, it is somebody’s Super Bowl. So of all the teams Kentucky could meet in the NCAAs in Louisville, the Men of Krzyzewski seem the least likely to be fazed by encountering a de facto road game.

Before Williamson was sidelined by injury Feb. 20, Duke was 6-0 in true road games, including wins at No. 2 Virginia and No. 12 Florida State.

Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari talks about Zion Williamson’s injury. The Duke freshman sprained his knee when his Nike shoe blew out during a game against North Carolina. UK basketball players also wear Nike shoes.

2. An Elite Eight meeting between Kentucky and Duke inside the commonwealth would put all the pressure on the Wildcats — and remove stress from the Blue Devils — because the narrative of the game would be that it was being played under conditions heavily favorable to UK.

3. If Kentucky loses to Duke inside the state of Kentucky for the right to go to the Final Four, it would be the kind of loss that will eat at UK fans to their cores. It would give Duke backers an emphatic new verbal knife to twist into the Big Blue Nation.

4. UK’s history in NCAA Tournament region finals played inside the state of Kentucky is not stellar.

All-time in NCAA tourney games inside the commonwealth, the Wildcats are 14-4 — 7-1 in Louisville, 6-3 in Lexington and 1-0 in Bowling Green.

Kentucky is 4-0 in the KFC Yum Center in March Madness, winning its first two games there en route to the 2012 national title and the 2015 Final Four.

However, UK is only 2-3 all-time in regional finals played inside Kentucky.

In Lexington, the Cats beat Notre Dame in 1958 in Memorial Coliseum on the way to the NCAA title and bested Illinois in 1984 to earn the ill-fated Final Four date with Georgetown.

But Kentucky lost on its home court with the Final Four at stake in 1957 to Michigan State and in 1968 to Ohio State and was defeated in a region finals at Louisville’s Freedom Hall by Ohio State in 1961.

5. One would certainly surmise that a heavily-pro UK crowd in the stands for a game against Duke would be an advantage for Kentucky.

Then again, when Kentucky and Duke opened the current season in the State Farm Champions Classic in Indianapolis, boisterous Wildcats fans dominated the Bankers Life Fieldhouse stands.

I will not put UK backers through the trauma of repeating the score from that game.

The best scenario for John Calipari and the Wildcats to face Mike Krzyzewski and the Blue Devils would be in the NCAA championship game in Minneapolis.

If you accept that Duke with a healthy Williamson is this year’s team to beat, you want to give the rest of the NCAA Tournament field the maximum opportunity to upset the Blue Devils before your team has to face them.

Not once, but twice Reid Travis considered playing for Duke. He has high regard for Kentucky’s opponent on Tuesday.

Besides, in an NCAA title game, the stakes and pressure would be equally high for both teams.

This week, Kentucky backers should hope UK fares well enough in the SEC Tournament to earn the No. 1 NCAA tourney seed in the South Region and the chance to play in Louisville that comes with it.

However, rooting to have Duke placed in The Ville with the Cats as a means to maximize UK’s chances of beating the Devils is an idea that might sound better in concept than it would work in reality.

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Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a H-L sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.


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