BOZICH | One tournament (SEC) down, one (NCAA) to go for 34-0 Kentucky
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WDRB) – Now we proceed to the only question that has truly mattered for this Kentucky basketball team:
Will they win the NCAA Tournament?
Blast Kansas, UCLA, North Carolina, Louisville and anybody else that tried to jump in front of the Wildcats in November or December?
Check. The Wildcats sprinted to 13-0.
Bounce to 18 straight victories in the overwhelmed Southeastern Conference by an average winning margin of nearly 17 points during the regular season?
Check. That got Kentucky to 31-0.
Hop, skip and jump to three more victories in the SEC Tournament this weekend at Bridgestone Arena, winning every game by at least 15 points, including a rip-and-run, 78-63, win against Arkansas Sunday.
Check. Make that 34-0.
"Just to be undefeated still, that's incredible," Kentucky guard Devin Booker said. "We always said we're not going to lose a game together. But now that it's actually coming together and the only way to get to a national championship is not lose a game, we're just enjoying it."
"Cal's done a terrific job of keeping them on task," Arkansas coach Mike Anderson. "As you can imagine there are a lot of distractions out there.
Kentucky led this one by 16 at halftime, dogging the Razorbacks into missing 22 of their first 31 shots. They made three-point shots. They were too big, too strong and too relentless on the glass.
The second half was not as overpowering, but John Calipari can use it as a teaching moment. Arkansas closed the deficit to nine (48-39) by the second media timeout. The Razorbacks were still hanging around (trailing 54-45) with about 9 ½ minutes to play.
Nine is as close as it got – even after UK guard Aaron Harrison went to the bench with a sore side and center Willie Cauley-Stein suffered a cut on the bridge of his nose.
Kentucky can overcome aches and pains and 13 turnovers and 34 Arkansas points in the pain and anything else that Razorbacks tried.
"You can't play power basketball against Kentucky," Anderson said. "You've got to get the flow going. You can't let them annihilate you on the glass."
Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky's hyper-active center, played his best basketball, giving the Wildcats 42 points, 21 rebounds and seven blocks in three games. Cauley-Stein and Andrew Harrison led Kentucky with 15 points Sunday.
Harrison and his twin brother, Aaron, were efficient from the three-point line, making six of eight.
Cauley-Stein, Aaron Harrison and Andrew Harrison made the all-tournament team -- with Cauley-Stein winning the most outstanding player award.
"They can just block your shot or try to tip it away," Arkansas center Bobby Portis said. "That's a big key for them."
This Kentucky team has one quality that is not as sexy as the shot-blocking or two platoons but will provide Calipari more security for the next three weeks.
Kentucky can make free throws.
They made 19 of 23 while defeating Florida in the quarter-finals, 30 of 35 while handling Auburn in the semifinals and 21 of 27 against Arkansas.
Final count: 70 of 85.
Final percentage: 82.4. That's a number that wins championships.
All that remains for Calipari's team is checkmate. That will require six more moves, starting with Thursday at the NCAA Tournament in Louisville.
They'll be the tournament's top overall seed, starting their post-season against a No. 16 seed in front of thousands of their fans at the KFC Yum! Center in downtown Louisville.
Win that and they'll play either an eight- or nine-seed on Saturday. Win that and it's off to Cleveland the following weekend for the Midwest Regional. The Final Four is booked for Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis April 4-6.
If the Wildcats play the next three weekends the way they performed this weekend in Nashville, they can win the school's ninth NCAA title on five tanks of gasoline.
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