Thirty six hours. That's all that remains separating the Big Blue Nation from the game of they year for their Kentucky Wildcats. Just thirty six hours from now, the Kentucky Wildcats and Ohio St. Buckeyes will tip off what figures to be a classic. These two teams each have advantages and disadvantages against each other. Kentucky has had a good year, Ohio State has had a great year. This is the game we have all been waiting for, a little bit like the UMass-Kentucky game in 1996 that happened too early.
I don't really mean to suggest that Kentucky will win the NCAA tournament if they do manage to upset the Buckeyes -- that's hubris over logic. Rather, I am suggesting that this game is by far Kentucky's biggest test of the year, and if they pass this, they have a very good shot to win the East Regional, although I imagine very few people would pick them right now over the North Carolina Tar Heels to get to the Final Four. From now on, Kentucky is an underdog, most likely, no matter who they play.
Being the underdog is an unfamiliar position for Kentucky lately. In the last two years, Kentucky has rarely been anything other than the betting favorite, and even though I don't think there is anything inherently helpful about being picked to lose, it can help with motivation. It also helps that fan's expectations of this Wildcat squad were greatly reduced as a result of the Kanter matter.
This game reminds me a lot of the 1975 Kentucky vs. the Indiana Hoosiers in the Mideast Regional in Dayton. Kentucky came into that game ranked #5 in the nation, and Indiana was an overpowering #1 on a 34-game winning streak behind legends Scott May, Quinn Buckner and Kent Benson. There were no seeds at that time, but Kentucky was a significant underdog due to the awesome power of Indiana, who at that time were far and away the best team in college basketball.
Kentucky upset the Hoosiers 92-90 and went on to the Final Four, losing famously to John Wooden's UCLA Bruins team in the championship game that was his last game as head coach, a fact he announced just prior to the game. That produced one of three Kentucky runner-up finishes in the NCAA tournament. Kentucky fans will remember that Kevin Grevey, Mike Flynn, Bob Guyette and Jimmy Dan Connor were among the seniors on that team, and that Jack Givens, Rick Robey, James Lee, and Mike Phillips were the fabulous freshmen who would go on to win it all three years later in 1978 as seniors.
Like this team, the 1975 team was a great shooting team from the perimeter. They also had a very good freshman in Rick Robey at center, and this was a memorable upset that still galls many fans of the Cream and Crimson. Like that game, the contest versus Ohio State will feature the Buckeyes as a powerful team that has lost but two games this year, and has dominated many opponents with their balance and experience.
The last time Kentucky played a #1 seed as a #4 seed was back in 2002 in the East Regional. Unfortunately, that didn't work out too well for the Wildcats as they fell to the eventual champions, the Maryland Terrapins 68-78 in Syracuse, New York.
It is interesting to note that Kentucky has never won the NCAA tournament, or gotten to the Final Four, at a seeding lower than #2. Kentucky's biggest upset ever in the NCAA tournament was as a 12 seed, when they upset #5 seed Washington and #4 UNLV en route to losing to #1 St. Johns in 1985.
So the Wildcats stand to make history tomorrow night against Ohio State. 4 seeds upsetting 1 seeds is not super rare, but it is fairly uncommon, happening only 17 times since seeding began. Interestingly enough, 3 of those upsets happened in 1997, when the Arizona Wildcats upset 3 different #1 seeds: the Kansas Jayhawks, the North Carolina Tar Heels, and the Kentucky Wildcats to win the national championship. Also interestingly, the Wildcats have been the victims of a 4-1 upset twice -- the aforementioned 1997, and in 1980, when the Duke Blue Devils sent us packing in the Sweet Sixteen.
Another bit of analysis suggests itself, though. Kentucky probably should have been seeded on the 3 line rather than the 4. So how many times have 3-seeds upset #1 seeds? You'd figure it to be less, since that matchup always occurs in the regional final or beyond. In fact, it has happened 13 times, the most recent being 2009 when the Villanova Wildcats defeated the Pittsburgh Panthers in the Elite Eight. The Florida Gators won the tournament as a 3 seed in 2006, as did the Syracuse Orange in 2003. The Marquette Golden Eagles upset Kentucky in 2003 also as a 3 seed (that particular game still hurts).
So don't let the pundits fool you -- 4-1 upsets happen, and Kentucky is arguably the strongest 4 in the entire field, so this could make it more like a 3-1 game. History shows, however, that only once has a team won the tournament from the 4 spot, and that was Arizona in 1997. 3 seeds have done it 4 times: Florida in 2006, Syracuse in 2003, the Michigan Wolverines in 1989 and Indiana in 1981.
Let's hope this tournament is like 1997. Arizona should not be the only team to win from the 4, they need some company.