Kentucky Basketball: Beware the Ides of March

So as a tired but happy Kentucky Wildcats team sashays into the post season, we are hearing a lot of rip-roaring criticism about the way this 2010 version of the NCAA tournament was put together.  The sky is blue. the Pope is Catholic.  I know this shocks you all.

For myself, I think the 2010 version of the Big Dance looks exciting.  Yes, a few of the calls by the committee are head-scratchers, and we are even seeing a few conspiracy theories pop up.  Myself, I reject all that as typical tournament talk, and I really look forward to the tournament moving forward.

Since we are talking dissatisfaction and unhappiness, how mad should the Mississippi St. Bulldogs be that a lane violation occurred during the game on the play that resulted in DeMarcus Cousins' game-tying shot?  Personally, I can understand their frustration.  What basketball fan has not lost a game on a controversial play that later shows some kind of violation or clear foul on replay?  We have all seen it dozens of times.

So I don't blame MSU for griping about this a little.  I will point out, however, that officials very rarely allow games to be decided with whistles.  We have seen many travels, fouls, and other sorts of things that would have nullified a last-second shot or put the guy on the line with no time left.  The fact is, basketball officials are very reluctant to blow the whistle on that last play unless there is a clear and unambiguous advantage gained by the violator, and even then they sometimes don't blow the whistle.  I think it is a built-in reflexive thing for officials to let game-deciding plays be contested on the court, absent something truly egregious.

More after the jump.

Was DeMarcus Cousins fouled during the put-back attempt?  Possibly.  No call.  Correctly, no call.  Why?  The officials are reluctant to interject themselves into game-ending plays like that.  It is natural, and to a large degree, commendable.  But UK fans are going to have to remember this the next time a buzzer-beater doesn't go our way and there is a violation that is obvious on replay.  Live by the sword, die by the sword, that's the way of things.  Mississippi State had a lot to lose on that play, and they are correct that there were violations (arguably by both sides) that did not get called.

Did the officials not make a call that was available?  Yes.  Was it the right call?  Yes, regardless of whether Stansbury thinks so or not.  It happens all the time.  Very little is left by rule to the judgment of the officials, yet that judgment absolutely impacts every game.

So does MSU have a beef about not being selected to the tournament?  Absolutely not.  Rick Stansbury scheduled an extremely easy OOC schedule thinking that he would dominate the SEC West and get in on the strength of that.  It was purely a misjudgment on Stansbury's part.

The strongest teams in MSU's OOC schedule was always going to be UCLA, Old Dominion, and Richmond.  Now, with all due respect to the fact that UCLA had a miserable year, these teams are the highlight of your pre-conference schedule, really? 

Look at Florida by comparison:  Florida State, Richmond, Syracuse, Michigan State.  Now that's how you schedule when you have twice been bitten by weak OOC slates.  Stansbury needs to shut his yap and learn the same lesson Billy Donovan learned.



Moving along to Kentucky's draw in the tournament, there has been a lot of hand-wringing about how tough it is.

Let me just say, with all the love and affection I can muster:  GET OVER IT! 

Good grief, we are Kentucky, not Duke.  We don't need help, and if we do lose, we should not be whining about getting beat.  Nobody is entitled to an easy road, and Kansas' trip looks just as tough, to me at least, as Kentucky's.  So let's stop worrying about the draw and get ready for a wild ride.  These kids need to face tough teams, because if UK does get anywhere near the Final Four, they will require more battle-testing than they've had so far this year.

That's the one thing this Kentucky team lacks that it really needs before it earns the right to play for the NCAA championship -- to be more tested than they were against SEC foes.  This bracket, in my mind, is very favorable to UK, particularly because the Wildcats will get to play the kinds of teams that will prepare them for what awaits them in the later rounds.  Let's look at the likely opponents if the seeds win properly:

  1. The Texas Longhorns -- Texas is a big, strong, talented team the likes of which does not exist in the SEC this year.  Kentucky has out-bulked every team they have played, but they won't out-bulk the Longhorns.  This game is an excellent preparation for the Kansas Jayhawks.

  2. The Wisconsin Badgers -- Wisconsin is a relatively small but extremely disciplined team that loves to control the pace and execute sharply.  They remind me somewhat of the Duke Blue Devils, and have many of the same characteristics -- good three point shooting and strong perimeter defense.  Wisconsin would be excellent preparation for Duke.

  3. The West Virginia Mountaineers -- While they don't play the zone, the Mountaineers have quite a bit in common with the Syracuse Orange.  Both are long, athletic teams who can shoot from the perimeter.  Both have some size but relatively little bulk.  Both defend very hard, and both are excellent offensive rebounding squads despite their lack of bulk.  While Syracuse is more comfortable at a higher pace, both teams are equally efficient offensively and play a tough, determined game.

Does Kentucky have a tough, rocky road to the Final Four?  Absolutely.  But if they can win through, they will be ready to win the national crown.  The tests along the way will be invaluable to preparing them for the most pressure-packed and intense of all college basketball scenarios, and will challenge their toughness and determination.  Get past this bracket, and Kentucky will have made the case that they are worthy of playing in April, and taking on the rest of the best.

So don't be upset with this region.  Instead, celebrate it.  This is the kind of road this team needs to travel in order to have a genuine chance to win it all.  They are young and have never faced this kind of pressure, but they have also shown throughout the year that they can beat good teams in tough situations.  They will need to do so to get to the last weekend of college basketball season, and this bracket could not do a better job of preparing them physically and mentally for getting to Base Camp of college basketball's Mount Everest -- the Final Four.  The push to the summit demands a tested and seasoned team.

Finally, I want to take the position that if UK doesn't get to the Final Four, it doesn't much matter where we fall (Except in the first round -- I don't want to make that kind of history).  Kentucky's tradition does not celebrate Sweet Sixteens, or Elite Eights, and we barely acknowledge Final Fours (except to use it as a bludgeon against coaches we perceive to be underachieving).  Kentucky is about championships, and if we fail to reach that objective, the particulars of that failure are somewhat irrelevant.

So here's to the bracket.  I love it.  Go, 'Cats!

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