Unchecked paranoia is as much a part of John Calipari’s coaching mindset as relentless defense, a rugged paint presence and sharing the basketball. He is sure you’re out to get him. All of you.
When the RPI repeatedly spit out rankings that were unfavorable to his Memphis teams, Cal suspected a conspiracy. In 2005, I was in attendance when he told his radio show audience, with no hint of humor, “We’ve got to get a Memphis guy putting the numbers into that computer. Or at least somebody who isn’t against Memphis.”
At Kentucky, where being on the bubble is very rarely a concern, Cal has pivoted his conspiracy theories from the RPI toward the NCAA tournament selection committee. Every year, Cal complains about the draw his Wildcats receive, and the sinister forces behind it.
He was especially fired up this year, when Kentucky was given a No. 5 seed and dispatched to Boise, beyond the reach of the most mobile, agile and hostile fan base in America. Not only that, the Wildcats were put in the same region with presumed No. 1 NBA draft pick Deandre Ayton of Arizona and unquestioned No. 1 overall tourney seed Virginia.
“They’re not going to make it easy for us,” Calipari said on Selection Sunday. “They could say this is all by the numbers and all that. OK.”
See? Committee chair Bruce Rasmussen and the gang are out to get him.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the Big Blue Gauntlet: Kentucky got lucky instead. The bracket has fallen apart in front of the Wildcats, to a historic degree. The draw that was supposed to be so difficult might actually be the softest since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. It would, statistically, be the easiest run any non-No. 1 seed has enjoyed en route to the Final Four.
Ayton and Arizona were blown out by Buffalo. Then Virginia collapsed against No. 16 seed UMBC, the worst loss in NCAA tournament history. Kentucky’s path through the second and third rounds suddenly became much more navigable — No. 13 Buffalo in the round of 32, and now No. 9 Kansas State on Thursday night in Atlanta in the Sweet 16.
But that isn’t all. On the other side of the South region, No. 2 seed Cincinnati blew a 22-point lead and lost to No. 7 Nevada. And both No. 3 Tennessee and No. 6 Miami were dispatched by No. 11 Loyola Chicago. That means a potential regional final against Cinderella (Nevada) or Cinderella-er (Loyola).
And quite suddenly, nobody in the last 33 years has ever had it as good as Kentucky will have it. Should Cal’s rapidly improving team advance through the city known during March tournaments as “Catlanta” — the fan turnout will be an absolute avalanche of blue — the path to San Antonio will be historically smooth.
If Kentucky beats Kansas State — which actually dropped a spot in the Pomeroy Ratings, to 39th, after slogging past UMBC on Sunday — and plays Nevada, the combined seed total of UK’s four opponents will be 41. If Kentucky beats Kansas State and plays Loyola, that seed total would be 45.
Seven Final Four teams have had a total higher than 41 and seven have had a total higher than 45: Duke 1986 (43), UNLV 1990 (47), North Carolina 1991 (47), Michigan 1993 (44), Duke 1999 (43), Michigan State 2001 (48) and Kansas 2008 (46). But here’s the catch: All of those were No. 1 seeds. Through pre-tournament performance, they earned the right to start with a No. 16 seed and then either a No. 8 or No. 9. The breaks they received didn’t really start until the Sweet 16.
Kentucky is in line for three substantial breaks in terms of opponent: a 13 seed instead of a 4 in the second round; a 9 instead of a 1 in the third; and either a 7 or 11 instead of a 2 in the fourth. The differential between the Wildcats’ path and what would have been the hardest possible path is 22 or 26. For the seven fortunate teams listed above, the highest differential between its path and the hardest possible path was 18 (Michigan State 2001).
Only two teams have made the Final Four by playing four straight opponents from the bottom half of the 64-team field: North Carolina ’91 and Michigan State ’01. If UK beats K-State on Thursday and Loyola on Saturday, it will be the third.
Funny thing is, Kentucky might not have needed the bracket collapse to get here. A team that at one point was 6-7 in the Southeastern Conference has been a month-long build, getting better in every area. This has been one of the best in-season coaching jobs of Cal’s career.
The Cats might well have gotten to Atlanta no matter who they played in Boise. But the broken bracket only made it easier.
Thus, what the dastardly selection committee tried to orchestrate, Kentucky karma has unsprung. The team that eliminates Kentucky likely won’t be Kansas State, which has the No. 75 offense in the nation per Pomeroy — that’s the 15th-most efficient of the 16 remaining teams in the tournament. K-State has been without its best player, injured Dean Wade, though he may be back Thursday night.
And the team that eliminates Kentucky doesn’t figure to be Nevada, which at No. 109 has by far the worst defensive ranking in the Sweet 16. The Wolf Pack has come back from major deficits each of its first two NCAA tourney games, and that’s a risky way to keep advancing.
Loyola might be the longest shot of all, in terms of seeding (11th), conference affiliation (Missouri Valley) and stature (Kentucky is fourth nationally in average height, per Pomeroy, while the Ramblers are 225th). Then again, they do have the ultimate karmic weapon: Sister Jean, the 98-year-old unofficial assistant coach and team inspiration. John Calipari is a diligent church-going Catholic, but Sister Jean is the church.
Which means, if it comes down to a Kentucky-Loyola regional final, even God might be out to get Cal.
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