Mar 07, 2012 Phil Blackwell Uncategorized
So it is March, the month when casual college basketball fans join the die-hards, all intoxicated by the smell of newly printed brackets in the morning and the certain thought that they, the greatest experts of all, will win their NCAA pool and take home the (technically illicit) dough.
Already, the narrative is setting up. Two teams, Kentucky and Syracuse, have hogged the no. 1 ranking from December onward, putting up similar records and similar dominations in respective power conferences, leading to certain no. 1 seeds for the Dance.
That’s where the similarities cease, though. Take a sampling of the hoops pundits, and UK is projected as a close-to-unstoppable favorite, bursting with NBA-bound talent and defensive dominance.
SU, on the other hand, is nit-picked about every conceivable flaw, legitimate (defensive rebounding) and otherwise. The closeness of some of the Orange’s victories in the Big East is magnified. Similar contests UK had to deal with in the SEC are minimized.
Still, few dispute the notion that the Orange of Central New York and the Wildcats of the Bluegrass are the nation’s top two sides. Oh sure, Kansas, Missouri, Michigan State, Duke or North Carolina might carp, but they’ve all had more lapses than SU or UK.
And all of that means absolutely nothing come March 15. The beauty, and curse, of the NCAA Dance is that any team, no matter how great, can see the dream end with one bad night – and a hot night from an inspired opponent.
Thus, any time you hear someone talk about Kentucky’s inevitable march to the national title, remind yourself that the same tale has been heard before and, well, things didn’t turn out that way.
Granted, some pre-tourney favorites have rolled to the prize. Think Duke in 1992 and 2001, Kenutcky in 2006, Florida the second time around in 2007, North Carolina in 2009. Just as often, though, the so-called chalk got erased, and quite often UK was in the middle of it.
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.
It’s all just too much, and while people certainly care a lot in Syracuse, too, it never reaches the level of saturation that defines UK hoops. There, either the Wildcats win it all, or it’s not worth talking about.
Of course, there’s one huge exception to that rule, and it’s reaching a milestone. Exactly 20 years ago, Pitino’s resurrection of the UK program from probation and scandal climaxed when a group of five seniors, who stayed there because they couldn’t go anywhere else, went all the way to the regional final, only to be stopped in an all-time epic by Duke that you may have heard about.
The most poignant part was the aftermath of the Laettner shot – heartbroken players returning home, only to see thousands greeting them at the airport. And a month later, the jerseys of the “Unforgettables” were raised to the rafters at Rupp Arena.
For a moment, in Kentucky, perspective arrived. They don’t have that now, and the insane pressure to win it all may ultimately benefit the team in Orange right behind them in the rankings.