ATLANTA (WDRB) — Nobody's happy. Not John Calipari, not athletic director Mitch Barnhart, not the University of Kentucky players.
The Wildcats were announced as a No. 8 seed in the Midwest Region on Sunday night after a one-point loss to No. 1-ranked Florida in the SEC Tournament title game. They'll face No. 9 seed Kansas State in St. Louis on Friday, then likely undefeated Wichita State if they advance. The games will be played in St. Louis.
If the Wildcats get through all that, they'd earn a potential Sweet 16 matchup with No. 4 seed Louisville, which will have issues of its own in its section of the bracket. Down on the other side of it all lurks Duke and Michigan.
The NCAA released its seed list, on which it based its bracketing, and UK was ranked No. 29. The Wildcats finished ranked No. 15 in the RPI, the NCAA's own index, earlier in the day, with a No. 4 strength of schedule. But ten losses, including four in their final seven games, which included back-to-back losses to Arkansas at home and South Carolina on the road, cost the Wildcats.
"I'm disappointed," UK athletic director Mitch Barnhart said. "I thought our kids deserved better. I thought our league deserved better. It wasn't shown much respect. . . . When the committee and those folks ask you to play strength of schedule and those kind of things, that's what I think we do. We play a difficult strength of schedule. We've beat some teams that clearly are seeded ahead of us. Sometimes that happens. I get that. But I'm really, really proud of our kids and the way they responded in the tournament and the way we're playing, and I hope we play with a little chip on our shoulder and go prove some people wrong."
Willie Cauley-Stein said the mood in the room where UK's players watched the announcement was silent, that there was no reaction when UK's seeding and opponent were announced. But he said he didn't expect any favors from the committee.
"It's us against the world," he said. "Nobody likes how we run things at Kentucky. A lot of people want to see us fail."
Calipari said that all his team can do is go out and prove itself on the court. But he clearly was irked that his team likely was slotted as a No. 8 seed going into today's game against No. 1 Florida, and, in his view, would've been a No. 8 even had it won the tournament title.
"We'd have been an eight if we won this game," Calipari said. ". . . They made their minds up that that's what this team was. the only way you can prove them wrong is to go play ball."
The Wildcats that UK will face in their first game are a physical team, though not necessarily tall. Their calling card is defense but they come into the game off three straight losses and have struggled in general since back-to-back wins over Texas and Kansas at home in February.
They are one of the best teams in the country at defending the three, and have a legitimate 10-player rotation. But they struggle offensively at times themselves. They're led by Marcus Foster, a 6-2 freshman guard, who averages 15.6 points in nearly 30 minutes per game. Offensively, they rely on motion and passing, and have dished out 495 assists for their 779 field goals his season.
Calipari said he hasn't thought about Kansas State yet.
"No idea," he said. "Haven't watched the one second. Probably watch them on the plane."
Of his players' reaction to the seeding, Calipari said, "They're still disappointed we lost this game, so they're not thinking really. We've got a couple of kids who are almost despondent. I told them, I'm not concerned. I'm not even going to watch the tape. Let's go play Kansas State. . . . I'm good (with the tournament profess). We didn't play great. We've still got some guys who are kind of in a funk now. I'm trying to make the game simple so they've just got to listen. We've got a couple of guys, we've just got to get them on the same page with everyone else."
When someone asked him if he thought Wichita State should be upset with its No. 1 season being rewarded with a possible third-round game against Kentucky, Calipari shot back quickly.
"He's not worried about anybody," Calipari said of Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall. "I've had that team, when I was at UMass. And we weren't worried about anybody else. Didn't matter who we played, we were comfortable. And if it's an 8 and 9 seed, they're, like, ‘I don't care who they are. They're still an 8 or 9 seed.' And we've got to win. I'm not worried about Wichita and they're not worried about us. We've got to win our first game, and that's all our focus will be on — trying to be prepared to play a really good team, a very physical team. So they kind of threw that out. ‘Who's the most physical team out there? Let's… .' Boom. I mean, it's a physical game and it's going to be a tough game."
One nugget to tuck away where the Wildcats are concerned. They are, of course, the youngest team in the NCAA Tournament field. In each of the past two seasons, the youngest team in the field has reached the championship game.