Let's not beat around the bush: Kentucky's bracket is the toughest in the 2014 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament. The Selection Committee must have it out for one or more of the teams in this region because it is far and away the most difficult. John Calipari finds his Kentucky Wildcats in a rough spot seeded as an eight with a tough game against the Kansas St. Wildcats to kick things off and then a date with 34-0 Wichita State as a possible conciliation prize if they do indeed knock off the other Wildcats.
The Midwest is no joke, and whichever team makes it out alive may very well be a battered and bruised squad leading into the Final Four. How loaded is this Region? Kentucky, Louisville, Michigan and Duke have each been to the Final Four once since 2010. Kentucky and Louisville have been there twice. The last two national champions are the four and the eight seed. The only team that has gone undefeated in the regular season since the 70's is the one seed. Louisville and Michigan faced off in the national title game last year. Louisville and Kentucky faced off in the Final Four two years ago. I could go on and on, but you get the picture.
Do the Wildcats have a chance at making it to their third Final Four in four seasons? Yes, there is always a chance, but it's not going to be easy. The road is brimming with danger and storylines that would feel right at home on the front page of The National Enquirer.
First up for Kentucky will be the Kansas State Wildcats, a team that has some impressive wins as well as some big time blunders. K-State owns wins over Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, and Iowa State. But all of those wins were at home. The other Wildcats are a woeful 2-7 away from Manhattan and are on a three game losing skid to end the season. They also dropped early games to Northern Colorado, Charlotte, and Georgetown. Bulletproof they are not, but Bruce Weber's team has seen Kentucky's size and athleticism against Kansas and Baylor. They are 1-3 against those two teams.
If UK makes it past K-State, number one seed Wichita State will most likely be the team waiting in the wings unless they earn the unenviable distinction of becoming the first #1 seed to ever lose to a 16 seed. But I don't think Cal Poly or Texas Southern have it in them to cause such a monumental upset.
But let's say for curiosity's sake that both Kentucky and WSU make it to Sunday to face off, can you imagine the storylines? The media would play up the 40-0 nonsense and the fact that the Shockers would be 35-0 at that point. They also would focus on a group of one and done NBA players vs. the virtuous Cinderella mid-major. I can already see Pat Forde salivating.
But what do we really know about the Shockers beside the fact that they came within a couple of Tim Henderson miracle shots from beating Louisville in the Final Four last season? They stormed through the Missouri Valley Conference, laying to waste teams such as Drake, Indiana State, Bradley, and Loyola University Chicago. They also beat BYU by 15, St. Louis by five and Tennessee by nine- all of them are tournament teams. And get this; they also have a common opponent in Alabama. They beat the Tide by five in Tuscaloosa.
I know there are many Kentucky fans that are stoked to have the Shockers as the one seed in our bracket, but do not sell them short. They are 34-0 for a reason and they will be looking to beat a team like Kentucky. Everybody is looking to beat a team like Kentucky.
If Kentucky does make it out of the first weekend, then the next weekend only becomes more difficult. A rematch with a Louisville team that seems to be playing their best basketball in Indianapolis looms in the Sweet Sixteen. And then a possible game between either Duke or Michigan for a chance to go to the Final Four. Only Frodo Baggins faced a journey fraught with this much peril.
But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves.
If Kentucky can continue playing basketball like the way they played it during the SEC tournament, then I like their chances. There are some favorable match-ups due to Kentucky's size and length. The guards are finding their stroke outside and Andrew Harrison is becoming a floor general. Willie Cauley-Stein woke up because he desperately wants to win a championship. But Julius Randle pulled a no-show against Florida and Alex Poythress has lagged on the floor at times.
We saw what this team is capable of when they put it all together for 40 minutes against the LSU Tigers and for 10 minutes against the Florida Gators. It's all about sustained effort and smart basketball. If they can match their IQ with their can-do, then I Like My Team.
Something stood out at me in the waning moments of the SEC Championship game. As the team huddled around Cal, he greeted them with a smile and a wink. That look said to me, "We got this. I've got your back. We're good." A slip by James Young is what stood between them and a season defining victory.
The good news is that season defining victory is still out there to be had. And this time, on the biggest stage of the season and of their lives.
It's tournament time, Big Blue Nation. Can you feel it?