Welcome to the Sweet Sixteen, Kentucky Wildcats fans!
Yes, that's where we are now, and I know it has been a long, agonizingly painful four-year road. But we are in the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament. That means the Wildcats are two games away from a Final Four, something that UK has been absent from since 1998.
But I'm getting ahead again. Let's review where we are.
The Kentucky Wildcats put on a performance that was far and away the best of the 2010 NCAA Tournament's first weekend. The Wildcats not only easily defeated their two opponents, the East Tennessee St. Buccaneers and the Wake Forest Demon Deacons, they completely dominated them.
But those games are history. This week is like starting the tournament all over again from scratch, only against tougher and more determined opposition.
Kentucky's road from here on goes through the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York, home of the East Regional finals. Participants in UK's little corner of the world include the Cornell Big Red, the Washington Huskies, and the West Virginia Mountaineers. Remarkably, there are two double-digit seeds still remaining in the bracket, and WVU and UK have played the lowest possible seeds en route to this destination.
More after the jump.
The bracket for the East region looks like this:
|Syracuse, NY||Syracuse, NY|
|Kentucky Wildcats [E1]|
|3/25 – 9:57 PM||UK/Cornell|
|Cornell Big Red [E12]|
|Final Four in Indianapolis|
|3/27 – Time TBD||East Regional Champion|
|Washington Huskies [E11]|
|3/25 – 7:27 PM||UW/WVU|
|West Virginia Mountaineers [E2]|
When you look at it this way, the goal seems very near and very achievable. Unfortunately, Kentucky's half of the bracket is no bargain. The Big Red of Cornell are one of the nation's best shooting teams, and the very best 3-point shooting team in the country. Plus, they have a former UK player getting quite a bit of time for them, the dread Mark Coury. Even though many of us derided Coury's talent, nobody could say anything negative about his heart and effort, as he played really hard for Kentucky even though he was miscast in his role as a UK player. He is much more comfortable, and much more effective, playing for the Big Red.
The Big Red are a mature, intelligent squad who understands that they will be out-athleted almost every time they take the floor. But Cornell is a team with decent size who compensates for their lack of athleticism by being in the right position much more often than most teams are, both offensively and defensively.
But even though the Big Red have won 29 games this year against only 4 losses, they have largely struggled against more athletic teams. For example, they lost an early season game to the Seton Hall Pirates, not exactly the Beast of the Big East, by ten at home. They famously played the Kansas Jayhawks tough in Allen Fieldhouse, but that looks a little less stellar now that Kansas has been dismissed from the tournament by a team very similar athletically to the Big Red in the Northern Iowa Panthers.
The team most like Kentucky remaining in the tournament, the Syracuse Orange, easily handled the Big Red in the Carrier Dome, and the Pennsylvania Quakers, another Ivy League squad that is 6-22 this year, put a beat-down on them on the road. Both those games had a common theme -- the Big Red were held to under 36% from the 3-point line.
Let's take a look at how Cornell won their first two games to earn a tussle with the Wildcats. Consider these charts:
What is it you see there that is similar in both graphs? Well, effective FG%, to be sure -- the Big Red have a very high eFG% average on the year of 57+%, and they bested that in both games. But I see something there I didn't expect -- Cornell outrebounded both the Wisconsin Badgers and Temple Owls substantially on the offensive glass. That's not unexpected, as Cornell is bigger than either of them. But they are not bigger than Kentucky.
We'll have to wait until game time to see if Kentucky's length combined with their athleticism can bother the Big Red shooters enough to keep them from shooting a high percentage, but one thing that does seem unlikely, particularly in view of how Kentucky played this weekend, is that Cornell will outrebound the 'Cats.
Moving on to the south side of the bracket, we'll play the "What If" game and take a look at who Kentucky might be facing if they are successful versus Cornell.
West Virginia is the #2 seed in the East, and even though they didn't have quite as easy a time of it as UK did, the Mountaineers took care of their first-round opponents, the Morgan St. Bears and the Missouri Tigers with relative aplomb. West Virginia wins by pounding opponents on the backboards, and is the second-best offensive rebounding team in the land. Fortunately, UK is almost as good at #7
The Washington Huskies are also a good offensive rebounding team, but the Huskies win by not being bad at anything -- they aren't great at anything, but they are very solid in every statistical area except for a tendency to send teams to the line a lot. The Huskies are long, lean and fast -- they ran the New Mexico Lobos, their second-round opponent, into the ground. They also proved to be too big and fast for the Marquette Golden Eagles. It would be interesting to see if Kentucky can keep up with them.
So as we turn our attention to Thursday, let's hope that the Big Blue Mist can invade the Carrier Dome and cover the eyes of the Big Red shooters. We'll have much more about Kentucky's game with Cornell later as we get closer to the game.