Kentucky – And Everyone Else

The University of Kentucky enters its regional semifinal matchup against Indiana as the only undefeated team in conference play left in the field of 16 that continues to vie for the NCAA National Championship.

Actually, that’s kind of a lie. Kentucky did finish 16-0 in conference play, but lost its SEC championship game in New Orleans to Vanderbilt. On the road back to New Orleans – this time for a bigger prize – the Wildcats meet the Hoosiers for a chance to turn sweet into elite.

Kentucky remains the best team left in the field by a longshot and absolutely should boast about its favorite status to cut down the nets in the Superdome. The Wildcats haven’t won a National Championship since 1998 and the folks in Lexington need a new banner like an alcoholic favors a shot of Maker’s Mark. Kentucky pays top dollar for everything in its basketball program. It’s time for the return on investment to produce one shining moment.

It won’t be an easy road. The Wildcats lost to Indiana in December on a last-second 3-pointer at Indiana’s Assembly Hall. On Friday night, in a Sweet 16 game played in “Cat-lanta,” dark blue will dominate the landscape inside the Georgia Dome. It’s scary how close these two teams are statistically. Both score right around 77 points per game and each team shoots almost exactly 49% from the field. The intense pace should provide a late night treat to the corneas of basketball junkies.

If the Wildcats get past Indiana, they will play for the South Regional championship on Sunday afternoon against either Xavier or Baylor. It’s foolish to eliminate any team from consideration before the final horn, but all signs point to a fairly easy Baylor victory on Friday. The likelihood of a fast-paced final in the Georgia Dome once again slightly favors the No. 1 seed. Kentucky can adapt to a fast game better than a slow-paced style that Wisconsin or Syracuse like to play. Vanderbilt proved that theory in the SEC Championship. If you slow the ‘Cats down and force them to go outside the paint, the odds all of a sudden turn in your favor. Indiana remains the only team to beat Kentucky at its own game this season and you can toss that result out the window since it took place three months ago.

Kentucky struts into the round of 16 as better than 2-1 favorites to walk away on April 2nd with a national championship. Sports doesn’t work that way. This alleged unbeatable team will be tested along the favorable path back to New Orleans. Nothing is a gimmie in the tournament. These are 19-year-old kids. If you give a kid enough time to savor a blowout win, the unintended backlash could play out with “we got this” attitude. These are not professional athletes. I would never feel great heading into a game after my team just curb stomped another team the way Kentucky handled Iowa State. Anyone can beat anyone.

No one ever remembers who won the conference championship. Everyone remembers who takes home the ring at the end of the season. Kentucky gets a second shot to cut nets down in New Orleans. Can they get there?

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