Wiedmer: Committee does University of Kentucky no favors

Wiedmer: Committee does University of Kentucky no favors

March 12th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Theoretically, the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament's overall No. 1 seed is supposed to have the easiest road to the Final Four in the Big Easy. That's why it's so coveted. That's why ESPN "Bracketologist" Joe Lunardi takes on Justin Bieber cult status over the first two weekends of March.

And when it comes to geography, the NCAA Selection Committee couldn't have been more kind to overall No. 1 Kentucky.

The Wildcats will face the Mississippi Valley State-Western Kentucky play-in game winner on Thursday in Louisville. Win that one and the next one inside the University of Louisville's sparkling Yum! Center and UK would play its Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games at the Georgia Dome in the city Big Blue backers have long labeled Catlanta.

Kind of the cushy road you'd expect for Numero Uno, wouldn't you say?

But it's that second game in Louisville on Saturday that should have the Big Blue Nation panicking and paranoid.

Let defending national champ Connecticut get past overachieving Iowa State on Thursday and the Huskies and Wildcats will reprise their Final Four meeting of a year ago, the one UConn won on its way its third national title since 1999.

But rather than have me rant about this pairing, let me turn this situation over to ESPN analyst Dick Vitale.

"By far, the South Region is the toughest," said Vitale. "The committee did no favors to the team rated overall No. 1. You look at Connecticut and they've got two (NBA) lottery picks, one perimeter (Jeremy Lamb) and one interior (Andre Drummond). Anytime, you've got that, you've got a chance."

This isn't to say UConn didn't deserve to be a No. 9 seed or worse. Over one 41-day stretch from mid-January to late February, the Huskies lost nine of 12. They finished 20-13 after a Big East tourney quarterfinal loss to Syracuse.

And perhaps by that measuring stick only, UConn-UK makes sense. After all, if the committee truly follows the S-curve -- best No. 1 against weakest No. 2, weakest No. 4 against strongest No. 5, etc.) -- then UConn probably was the strongest No. 9 against the weakest No. 8.

But the committee also likes to talk about the eye test -- which team's really better rather than the team that merely has the better record -- and despite their occasional lapses of effort and interest, this is the same UConn team that began the season ranked 4th nationally.

Heck, more than one of ESPN's talking heads during last week's Big East tourney said of these Huskies, "This team's more talented than last year's national champs."

So now this entire tournament can be expected to turn on a second-round game inside the Yum! Center this Saturday. Will the Wildcats become basketball version of Yum! Brands' Kentucky Fried Chicken? Or will the Wildcats erase "defending" national champ from the Huskies?

Not that this was the only fascinating match-up the committee could make possible. Let North Carolina reach the Midwest final and the Tar Heels will have to beat Kansas in St. Louis.

Vanderbilt -- which looked so strong in Sunday's SEC tourney win over UK -- opens against fellow academic giant and Ivy League champ Harvard.

Joked ESPN's Jay Bilas on Sunday evening, "Harvard's verbal scores are outstanding, but Vanderbilt's better in math."

Moreover, Florida could meet Missouri early in the West Regional, two teams as close to mirror images of each other as possible.

And should UK survive UConn, Big Blue could meet the only other team to beat it -- Indiana -- in a regional semi before possibly facing South No. 2 Duke in a rematch of the "Christian Laettner Game" 20 years ago.

No wonder Bilas echoed Vitale in calling the South, "The toughest region."

But the region's toughest game would be UConn-UK.

Said UK coach John Calipari Sunday night, "I'm told we have the toughest bracket. Let's just play each game like it's our last and see what happens."

If UConn isn't Kentucky's last game of the season, expect the Wildcats to join West No. 2 Missouri, North Carolina and Vanderbilt in the Final Four.

Otherwise, expect the Huskies to make their third Final Four in four years, with North Carolina winning it all either way.