Take 2003, when Kentucky and Arizona romped through the season. Inexplicably, they got put in the same half of the bracket, but neither group of Cats got to the Final Four. Some team in orange with guys like Anthony and McNamara took full advantage of their absence. A year later, UK again was a top seed, and didn’t get out of the first weekend, thanks to UAB.
The 2010 tournament brought another example of chaos. Kansas, the consensus choice, got stunned by Northern Iowa. Syracuse, a top seed with title dreams, saw Arinze Onuakou get hurt, and the dream got thwarted in the round of 16.
Then Kentucky assumed the favorite’s role, only to get bounced by West Virginia. Thus it cleared the path for Duke, and even the Blue Devils had to sweat out Butler and Gordon Hayward’s half-court heave at the buzzer of the title game.
Notice a pattern here? Kentucky has often wilted as a heavy favorite, but flourished with lower expectations. In 1998, UK was hardly the first choice, but with rallies past Duke, Stanford and Utah, the ‘Cats won it all. Nor was UK a favorite last March when it stunned both Ohio State and North Carolina to get to the Final Four, only to get thwarted by Kemba Walker and Connecticut.
Perhaps that has to do with the rabid hoops following from Perryville to Paducah. Decades of nearly unbroken success, seven national championships, 40-plus SEC titles and 23,000 at Rupp Arena every night has developed a monster that needs to be constantly fed.
Rick Pitino, once loved and now loathed in Lexington because he found gainful employment across the Commonwealth in Louisville, had the perfect phrase for it – he called Kentucky college basketball’s “Roman Empire”, full of glory and history and excess and shame.