Mind over Madness: UK, Virginia close regular season in very different manners

Pat Forde
Yahoo Sports

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Virginia had just lost for the second time in 30 games, on a swish that was less likely than being struck by lightning indoors on a sunny day. Louisville sophomore Mangok Mathiang, a 6-foot-10 center with range that extends an arm's length from the basket (at best) somehow stroked a 17-foot jumper with 2.7 seconds left and down went the Cavaliers, 59-57.

It was Mathiang's only shot of the game. He'd made just one other field goal since January and was 1-for-16 over the previous nine games.

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If it didn't sting so much, Virginia's players might have laughed at the flukish nature of the winning shot.

"I could live with that dude shooting shots to win," guard London Perrantes said, something approaching a smirk emerging beneath the navy blue hoodie that covered his head. "I'd let him shoot that 10 out of 10."

Quipped Rick Pitino: "Mangok was the 64th option."

Welcome to March. Where even the 64th option is a threat.

Mangok Mathiang (C) is congratulated by teammates after making the winning shot Saturday. (USAT)
Mangok Mathiang (C) is congratulated by teammates after making the winning shot Saturday. (USAT)

Mathiang's improbable star turn was a lovely moment for a guy who has struggled all season and become something of a whipping boy for Louisville fans frustrated by the team's gaping hole at center. It also was a shot across the bow for Virginia and all other highly ranked teams that enter postseason play wearing a bull's-eye.

The warning: At some point over the next month, just about every team figures to be a Mangok Mathiang jumper away from ruination.

Except maybe the team that played 75 miles down Interstate 64 earlier Saturday.

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LEXINGTON, Ky. – The Kentucky Wildcats dispatched Florida 67-50 on Senior Day, to use the term loosely. On a day that used to leave thousands of fans reaching for the Kleenex back in the days when Kentucky had seniors who actually played, the program honored a class consisting of three walk-ons by letting them play the first 22 seconds. At the first dead ball, John Calipari sent in the real players.

But there was something larger to honor than walk-ons in Rupp Arena on this day. An undefeated regular season, authored by a team now 31-0 and steamrolling into the Southeastern Conference tournament in Nashville as the landslide favorite to win the national championship and finish 40-0.

Any argument Virginia could have mounted for the overall No. 1 seed would disappear a few hours later. But even before that loss, Kentucky did nothing to loosen its ownership grip on the 2014-15 season.

"What they've done may not happen again for a long, long time," said Florida coach Billy Donovan, a guy who knows what a great team looks like.

His 2007 repeat national champions may have been the best college basketball team of the 21st century. But this Kentucky group could start an argument on that front if it finishes the quest – and of all the teams heading into the postseason, they will have the easiest road.

Not just because the Wildcats are the lock overall No. 1 NCAA tournament seed. The geography of the postseason favors them as well.

"From this point forward, they never, ever play a road game again," Donovan said. "Every game's a home game from here on out."

John Calipari's Wildcats head into the postseason sitting perfect at 31-0. (Getty)
John Calipari's Wildcats head into the postseason sitting perfect at 31-0. (Getty)

The Southeastern Conference tournament is in nearby Nashville, and you can expect the seats to be 90 percent blue when the Cats play. Then they'll start the NCAA tournament in Louisville's home area, the Yum Center, in a city where about 40 percent of the population roots for UK. The following weekend assuredly will be spent in Cleveland, a manageable drive from the Bluegrass State, and the Final Four is in Indianapolis, which is 114 miles up I-65 from the Ohio River that separates Kentucky and Indiana.

You could put NCAA tourney sites in Kabul, Marrakesh and Rejkjavik, and Kentucky would have the most fans in the gym. But when you make the commute this easy, the Big Blue occupation will be overwhelming.

So in addition to having the best team and the biggest team and the deepest team, Kentucky will have the most backing every stage of the way. It's a sudden-death tourney for the Wildcats, too, but their chances of survival are far better than anyone else's.

Virginia, still firmly in possession of a No. 1 seed but not without issues, will have it harder.

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The Cavaliers walked out of the gym here hoping they'll have a full complement of players when they get to Greensboro next week for the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, but unsure.

Guard Justin Anderson, the team's second-leading scorer, missed his eighth straight game Saturday. The first seven were due to a fractured finger suffered in the first meeting with Louisville. This time it was an appendectomy. Coach Tony Bennett can only wait and hope.

"He's so important for us, and we haven't had him for a while," Bennett said. "I can't tell when he'll come back. I've heard a week, two weeks. ... I hope sooner than later."

Malcolm Brogdon (R) hit a 3-pointer with 14 seconds left to take the lead before Mangok Mathiang's game-winner. (Getty)
Malcolm Brogdon (R) hit a 3-pointer with 14 seconds left to take the lead before Mangok Mathiang's game-winner. (Getty)

With Anderson, Virginia's offense gains a needed athletic dimension. Without him, Virginia's offense can look like it did at times against Louisville – stagnant, searching, in need of another multi-threat player who can shoot or drive.

Bennett has built his team radically differently than John Calipari has built Kentucky. He has zero McDonald's All-Americans, while Calipari has nine. Anderson may be a first-round pick if he comes out as a junior, but he's it – whereas the Wildcats could put eight or nine non-seniors into the draft.

It's been a gradual but inexorable build in Charlottesville, marked now by consecutive ACC regular-season titles. Last year, Virginia earned a No. 1 seed but was sent home in the Sweet 16 by Michigan State, in a two-point game.

If the Cavaliers had forgotten the vulnerability that comes with being a top seed in the tournament, Saturday's loss should remind them. Losing to Mangok Mathiang is one thing; losing in the Big Dance is another.

"We have to realize, it's one and done from now on," said Virginia forward Dario Atkins. "That game today was postseason play, right there."

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