It’s time for the NCAA Tournament, and I have a lot on my mind. So no flowery opening paragraphs, let’s get down to business.
The SEC Tournament Success and the Emergence of Dominique Hawkins
John Calipari loves to tell everyone that he hates conference championship games, but you couldn’t tell by the way he coached his Kentucky Wildcats through three impressive wins over the weekend.
De’Aaron Fox is playing like De’Aaron Fox again now that he is 100% healthy; Malik Monk looks like he’s just about back to form; the defense has dramatically improved; and Bam Adebayo continues his dominant play.
But the story coming out of Nashville is all about senior Dominique Hawkins. Hawk earned a spot on the All-Tournament Team (Fox was the MVP) and had the best game of his career in the championship game against the Arkansas Razorbacks scoring 14 points and getting four steals.
Dom has turned into not only a reliable sixth man, but also an integral part of this Kentucky basketball team. His toughness, defensive intensity, and his reliability not to be careless with the ball was never a question. He’s now added a confidence level in his offense that we have never seen before. He’s not afraid to take a shot or drive to the basket. And the shots that he takes are smart, good looks. Dom doesn’t force anything.
He reminds me of Darius Miller though he isn’t as dynamic on offense. Miller came off of the bench to provide a lift and a steady presence to a youth-filled team. Dom does the exact same thing. Now Cal doesn’t have to sweat if Fox, Malik Monk, or Isaiah Briscoe are in foul trouble. Dom steps in and performs at a high level.
I have never been happier for or more proud of a Kentucky basketball player. His emergence is happening at just the right juncture of the season.
On the Razorbacks Classless Play
There might not be a team that Kentucky plays that I dislike more than the Arkansas Razorbacks. From the fans, to the players, to the coaches, I find them to be the most classless bunch that Kentucky has to encounter every season. Yes, this includes the Louisville Cardinals.
The pathetic display from the Razorbacks in the last two minutes of the game as the ‘Cats looked to roll to victory was one of the most childish displays of behavior I’ve seen from a basketball team in a long time. Instead of finishing the game with some pride in the face of a beatdown, Mike Anderson’s team decided to become bullies and thugs.
It started with the gutless pick set by Dusty Hannahs on Dominique Hawkins that sent the UK senior to the floor. Hannahs threw his forearms into Dom’s face and chest, looking to take him down. That earned Hannahs a flagrant 1.
On the next offensive possession, Moses Kingsley didn’t even try to block De’Aaron Fox as he came down hard with both arms on Fox’s head and face. That earned Kingsley a flagrant 2 and an ejection. In the midst of all of this, Jaylen Barford is doing his best to get one of the UK players to fight him. To the credit of John Calipari and his team, none of the ‘Cats took the bait. Fox ended up burying a three after making his free throws and put the game completely out of reach.
But this is what we have come to expect from Arkansas. Things have always been chippy between the teams dating all the way back to Rick Pitino and Nolan Richardson, but things have escalated recently, even more so with the Malik Monk storyline. But the fact is this isn’t a rivalry. Kentucky owns the Razorbacks, and Cal has dominated them since he’s been at UK. The only rivalry exists in the deluded minds of their ignorant fan base.
I loathe everything about Arkansas, and I hope they get bounced from the NCAA tournament in the first round. They are an embarrassment to college basketball.
The road to a Final Four is Tough. Get over it.
Yes, Kentucky got screwed. They’re the only team to have to play two rematch games (UCLA/UNC if all three advance) in the tournament. Yahoo! listed Kentucky as one of the losers on Selection Sunday:
SELECTION SUNDAY LOSERS
Kentucky | Seed: 2 | Region: South
Kentucky has won 11 games in a row. The reward? Perhaps the toughest road to the Final Four of any top-four seed. The road could begin in the second round with No. 10 seed Wichita State, and with a bit of déjà vu. Back in 2014, the Shockers were a No. 1 seed, but drew an under-seeded Kentucky team in an epic Round of 32 showdown. This time around, it’s the Wildcats who could face a criminally underseeded Wichita State team in the same round. In fact, if Kentucky wants to make the Final Four, it might have to go through two KenPom top-10 teams, plus a third team, UCLA, that is in the top 10 of most other rankings. A Wichita State-UCLA-North Carolina back-to-back-to-back would be murderous.
So what’s new? Honestly, I don’t care one bit. I like the players that Kentucky has - three first-round draft picks and some veterans playing their best basketball - and I like John Calipari against any other coach in the tournament.
UCLA hasn’t been playing well since TJ Leaf was injured. North Carolina has flaws and, in my opinion, didn’t deserve a one seed. And Wichita State? They have one win against the tournament field. One. Go look at their resume and then come and tell me how impressed you are by it.
I’m not worried about this draw at all. I say bring it on. Because...
Kentucky is flying under the radar.
Conference champs? Check. Conference tournament champs? Check. Winners of 11 straight? Check. Best overall 2 seed? Check. First round NBA draft picks? Check. Confidence from the media at large? Almost zero.
Duke stole all the headlines over the weekend as they won four games to win the ACC title. ESPN talking heads have visions of a Duke/North Carolina title game dancing in their heads. While they fawn over two teams with combined 15 losses, the ‘Cats keep chugging along, winning basketball games and improving in every single outing.
Kentucky is going to have the home crowd in Indianapolis and in Memphis. And this isn’t the Rupp Arena crowd, folks. This is going to be a wild, raucous fan base looking for blood and a title. What’s UK’s record in a neutral court environment? 7-0. And five out of those seven have been by double-digits.
Nobody is expecting Kentucky to come out of the South. And this is the ammo Cal needs and craves. He loves being the underdog, the slighted forgotten titan. It feeds his competitive spirit. This attitude is already permeating through his team. They have an edge now more so than ever. It was evident in the SEC tournament as they did not wilt in the face of bullish behavior.
Let the ACC honks pick against the ‘Cats. The Big Blue Nation knows they have a giant in their basketball team. Everybody is healthy, and every player is peaking at just the right time.