Not long after learning his team would be the No. 8 seed in a region hailed as the NCAA tournament's strongest, Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart struggled to hide his disappointment.
"I do believe that we’ve got a very difficult path and obviously some really difficult games ahead of us," he told reporters on Selection Sunday. "If we find our way through it will have been well-earned.”
To say Kentucky's subsequent Final Four run has been well-earned is an understatement of massive proportions. A case can be made the freshman-laden Wildcats have endured the most difficult path to the Final Four of any team in NCAA tournament history.
In becoming only the sixth No. 8 seed ever to reach a Final Four, Kentucky ousted college basketball's first unbeaten regular season team in a decade, the defending national champions and the first-place team from this year's strongest league. Top-seeded Wichita State, fourth-seeded Louisville and second-seeded Michigan also were each among the four teams to reach Atlanta last April, making Kentucky the first team in history to eliminate three of the previous year's Final Four.
If the anecdotal evidence isn't compelling enough, consider the numerical data.
Add the seeds of the opponents Kentucky has faced to reach the Final Four — Kansas State (9), Wichita State (1), Louisville (4) and Michigan (2) — and the tally is 16. The average total of Final Four teams since the field expanded to 64 in 1985 is 31.4.
The only Final Four team to face a more challenging path based on seedings was LSU in 1986. The 11th-seeded Tigers are the only team in history to beat the top three seeds in their region to reach the Final Four, though they did catch a huge break playing opening weekend games against Purdue and Memphis State in Baton Rouge.
Kentucky's March turnaround becomes all the more impressive when taking into account the pressure on the Wildcats to redeem themselves for flopping in the regular season.
Thanks to the arrival of a recruiting class featuring a record six McDonald's All-Americans, Kentucky entered the season hailed as not just the nation's best team but a threat to go 40-0. That hype soon faded to intense criticism when the Wildcats turned out to be pretty ordinary, losing 10 regular-season games, falling out of the top 25 late in the season and limping into the NCAA tournament as a No. 8 seed.
Kentucky has been adept all season at gobbling up offensive rebounds and drawing fouls by attacking the rim, but the Wildcats have added other elements during the NCAA tournament to help pave the way for their unexpected success. They've defended better as a team and received far better guard play from the Harrison twins and James Young, each of whom have consistently knocked down 3-pointers when opponents have collapsed their defenses to protect the paint.
To win a national championship for the second time in three years, Kentucky will have to continue to play at just as high a level as they have the past two weeks.
Final Four opponent Wisconsin boasts an elite strategic coach, one of the nation's most multifaceted and efficient offenses and a defense that has improved considerably in March. And potentially looming in the title game is SEC champion Florida, which has defeated Kentucky all three times they've met.
If Kentucky were to beat Wisconsin and Florida to capture the national title, the seeds of the teams the Wildcats defeated to cut down the nets would total 19, the lowest of any champion since expansion to 64 teams. Two of the few champions who'd have a case they overcame a more difficult path than Kentucky's would be the 1997 Arizona team that defeated three No. 1 seeds en route to a surprise banner and the 1985 Villanova team that upset heavily favored Georgetown in the title game after toppling a trio of top-two seeds just to get there.
"I knew when I saw what was out there we were going to have a tough road," Kentucky coach John Calipari told reporters earlier this week. "Kansas State is really good, too, by the way. When you think of who we just had to play, and the games were epic games, all of them."
Four good wins, three classic games and one remarkable run.
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