Monday, March 15, 2004

Kentucky hits jackpot with top overall seed



By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

ATLANTA - Unlike last season, this wasn't a scorched-earth tour. All-Americans are absent. For a while this winter, it seemed Kentucky couldn't beat anyone by more than a point.

The Dance (Index)
Seeds: UK 1, UC 4, XU 7
Daugherty: Bandwagon jumpers look silly now
Seeds are planted, now for the games
Bracket breakdown
Women: UConn passed over for a top spot
Printable bracket (PDF):
Men | Women

Local teams:
Cincinnati | Opp.

Xavier | Opp.
Kentucky | Opp.
Women's NIT: Miami, Xavier and UC in

Yet here was Selection Sunday, and here were the Wildcats again being deemed the top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament.

"Everything didn't go the way we wanted, but here we are," senior guard Cliff Hawkins said. "We rose to the challenge."

A year after sweeping every national coach of the year honor, Tubby Smith didn't win either of the top-coach awards from his own conference this season. This is as under-the-radar as the nation's winningest program gets.

So before opening NCAA play Friday in Columbus - UK (26-4) will meet the winner of Tuesday's play-in game in Dayton between Lehigh (20-10) and Florida A&M (14-16) - it's worth looking back. This was a team ranked 11th in preseason, supposedly undersized and lacking toughness, purportedly lacking reliable bench play.

Now, after Sunday's 89-73 win over Florida in the Southeastern Conference final, Kentucky is riding a season-high nine-game winning streak, having won those games by an average of 15.9 points.

"I have not seen a better basketball team than Kentucky when they are playing at their best," South Carolina coach Dave Odom said. "It's a group that believes it has as good a chance as the 2003 Wildcats, if not better, to win a championship."

"We're a much more experienced group," senior center Erik Daniels said. "We have a great shot to win it."

Said reserve guard Ravi Moss: "We may not be as talented as last year, or strong, or as deep, but to be able to come down here and win the conference like this says something."

UK is the No. 1 seed in the St. Louis regional. This year, the Selection Committee ranked the four No. 1s for the bracket, and in deeming UK the top overall seed it paired the Wildcats with the weakest No. 1 seed - Saint Joseph's, in the East Rutherford regional - for a potential semifinal matchup.

Bob Bowlsby, chairman of the Selection Committee, said on CBS that Duke's loss Sunday to Maryland opened the door for UK to ascend to the position of overall No. 1.

Another perk is that UK was paired with the team deemed the weakest No. 2 seed: Gonzaga (27-2). The Bulldogs edged Pittsburgh for that spot, which might be beneficial for UK as the Panthers seemingly would have been a physical matchup in the Georgia mold.

Yet CBS analysts Clark Kellogg and Seth Davis both forecast Gonzaga to win the region, and Davis said, "I think this region is really loaded."

The No. 3 seed in the region is Georgia Tech (23-9). Fourth seed Kansas (21-8) could be aided by proximity, playing its first weekend in Kansas City and potentially next playing in nearby St. Louis.

After presumably winning its first-round game, UK could get an intriguing second-round matchup: either Washington or Alabama-Birmingham. The Huskies (19-11) recently ended Stanford's dream of an undefeated regular season, and UAB (20-9) has beaten Cincinnati and Charlotte in the past month.

The Wildcats regularly have cited the pain of the season-ending loss to Marquette in the 2003 Elite Eight as a motivating factor. Way back at the team's Big Blue Madness opening practice, it set the bar high with a fantasy video clip that ended with these words: 2004 national champions.

"We always think about last year and the way it ended," senior guard Gerald Fitch said. "Hopefully we can get further this time."

Kentucky's road to national title

(Matchups assume higher-seeded team advances.)

FIRST ROUND

Lehigh (20-10) or Florida A&M (14-16): A No. 16 seed has never won a tournament game. That doesn't mean it can't happen, but neither of these teams is the one to do it.

SECOND ROUND

Washington (19-11): The Huskies handed Stanford its only loss of the season and have won 14 of their last 17 games.

SWEET 16

Kansas (21-8): The Wildcats own the Jayhawks. They've won 19 of the two schools' 22 meetings, including a 92-88 overtime win in the second round of the 1999 tournament.

ELITE EIGHT

Gonzaga (27-2): The two teams have one common opponent - Georgia. Gonzaga beat Georgia 82-76. UK went 1-2 against UGa.

FINAL FOUR

Saint Joseph's (27-1): The Hawks went from the country's trendy pick to a group of frauds after their 20-point loss to Xavier.

FINAL

Duke (27-5): What a way to exercise the ghosts of Christian Laettner's 17-footer.

Also in Columbus

Washington vs. UAB

No. 8 seed Washington (19-11): Has won nine of last 11. Lost to Stanford (77-66) in Pacific-10 Tournament final. Before that, won six in a row and handed the Cardinal their only loss of the season. Finished second in the Pac-10 at 12-6. Former Saint Louis coach Lorenzo Romar, in his second year with the Huskies, completed coursework at the University of Cincinnati in 1992 and received his bachelor's degree in criminal justice.

No. 9 seed UAB (20-9): One of five teams to tie for the Conference USA regular-season title at 12-4. Making first NCAA appearance since 1999. Coach Mike Anderson has led UAB to a 41-22 record in two seasons. His team was in the 2003 NIT.

Ticket information

Columbus (Cincinnati, Kentucky)

Tickets through Nationwide Arena are sold out.

• UK's school allotment of tickets is gone.

• UC's school allotment of tickets: Information not available until today ($50 per session/$150 all sessions).

---

E-mail nschmidt@enquirer.com




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