NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WDRB) – The problem with this year’s NCAA Tournament field, frankly, isn’t that there are too many teams deserving of No. 1 seeds, but too many teams who deserve a No. 2 instead.
The University of Kentucky basketball team likely dropped off the top line of the NCAA seed list on Saturday, thanks to the final three minutes of their 82-78 SEC Tournament semifinal loss to Tennessee.
The reasons for the loss are nearly too many to mention. A million little things. Two quick fouls for P.J. Washington, one of them on a double-flagrant six minutes into the game. A technical foul on the bench with 11:15 left. Three turnovers in the final 3:42. Failure to grab a key offensive rebound, which led to the go-ahead three-pointer. Inability to deal with a 1-3-1 zone from Tennessee late. The majority of the wounds for Kentucky were self-inflicted, but that doesn’t mean they don’t hurt.
It was a somber locker room in Bridgestone Arena after Kentucky gave up an eight-point lead and was outscored 18-6 in the final three minutes. Kentucky went from up eight to down one in just 1:27. Two free throws, an and-one, and two threes, aided by turnovers from Tyler Herro and Keldon Johnson.
But there’s little point in spending too much time on this autopsy. Before the bandwidth dries on this column, all anyone will be talking about is Selection Sunday, less about whether the Wildcats will be a No. 1 seed than about whether they will get to play in the South Regional in Louisville.
That’s what matters. But I don’t want to let one of the better games of the year in college basketball pass without at least a nod of appreciation. The crowd was fantastic, with Kentucky, as it always does, having a home-court advantage in Nashville, but Tennessee representing, as you would expect in Nashville, extremely well.
The mix of fans, to me, was reminiscent of when Kentucky and Indiana used to split the tickets for games in Freedom Hall. And the atmosphere was fantastic.
One day after Duke and North Carolina put on a thriller in Charlotte in the ACC Tournament semifinals, Kentucky and Tennessee took their turns in the heavyweight division and proved worthy.
“I walked down the hallway, one of my coaches said, ‘That's the greatest game I've ever been involved in,’” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “It was a great game because it was two teams going at each other. They made a push, we made a push. Again, it was what everybody would expect from two teams that had really a great year, nice year. It was great.”
It’s also worth noting what happened in the Kentucky locker room after this game.
Washington, just a sophomore, stood up and told his teammates to get over this loss quickly, not to dwell on it. That there’s another, more important tournament to play. And he’s right on that score.
Reid Travis, the graduate transfer from Stanford who has brought so much stability to Kentucky’s lineup, said he thinks the team will take Washington’s message to heart.
“He just told everyone to keep your heads up, we have a lot of games left to play, and he’s right,” Travis said. “We shouldn’t be too down on ourselves. Be disappointed. Be mad. We felt like that was a game we should have won. But give them a lot of credit. They made a lot of plays down the stretch. . . . We have to understand we have big opportunities coming up. Learn from this. We still have a lot of work to do. We should be excited about that and be ready for the NCAA Tournament and be ready to attack that.”
Calipari gave credit to Tennessee. He said he was surprised his team gave up the lead in that situation.
“We usually don't give up those kind of games,” he said. “Even though we're young, we still usually finish them off. . . . I'm telling you, they played well. With an eight-point lead, we should win that game. They said, ‘You're not winning the game, we're not giving up, we're not stopping.’ We have the ball, we get a tip-in, they miss a shot. We miss the rebound, they score on that one. Changes the end of the game. You got to give them credit. Rick did a great job. He's continued to do a great job.”
What happens next? Well, Calipari put it pretty clearly.
“We'll drive home and get ready for the tournament,” he said. “I believe we'll be in, do you think so?”
Yes, Kentucky will be in. No, there’s no way to accurately forecast which metric the tournament selection committee will seize upon to rationalize whatever it does. Tennessee, however, may well have secured a No. 1 seed with this win. Virginia, likely, is a No. 1 despite its semifinal loss to Florida State in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. Everyone seems to believe Gonzaga is a lock for a No. 1 seed. I’m not sure why.
Calipari wasn’t lobbying, but was beginning to try to position his team among the Top No. 2 seeds, if not the top, with an eye toward playing in the regional just up Interstate 64 in Louisville.
“There's a bunch of teams that would say they should be (No. 1 seeds),” Calipari said. “I'd say we're pretty good. It's not if we're a 1 or 2. It's who is the other team? I have an idea who it will be. If you're telling me we're the No. 1 two seed, we should play the lowest of the one seeds. That's all I'm saying. If you're saying we're the second, we should play the third of the one seeds. Maybe it won't happen that way. We'll see.
“But it's fine. I say that, and before you even look at that team, you have to play three games. Every one of them are hard. There's some teams right now that they want to say mid-majors. You don't want to be playing them. It happened last year.”
Kentucky now gets a moment to regroup. Don’t expect it to dwell on what happened in Nashville for long. As this game showed, a partisan crowd close to home doesn’t guarantee anything. To win, you have to execute. No matter what number is beside your name, or where the game is played.
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