- Don't pencil in the Wildcats for San Antonio without remembering that the South Region's new favorite is also the least experienced team of the past decade-plus of college basketball.
ATLANTA — Before the SEC expanded its borders to far-flung outposts such as Columbia, Mo., and College Station, Texas, it held its men’s basketball tournament in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome most years. Inevitably, the Dome would fill with Kentucky blue, and for four days a year, the city would be referred to as Catlanta.
It feels that way again this week, but not because of all the Kentucky fans streaming south. This time, it’s because of the broadly held assumption that the fifth-seeded Wildcats—the highest-seeded team still playing in the South Region—will rip through two games here and walk into the Final Four while Duke, Villanova and the rest slug it out against heavyweights. The laziest of the opinion-makers, who tend to believe that staying in college because of an inability to get selected in the NBA draft somehow makes someone a better human being, will see the Wildcats with their usual cadre of one-and-dones and paint these next few days as Kentucky against several carloads of adorable puppies. Or perhaps baby seals.
As usual, the real situation is significantly more nuanced. Yes, Kentucky is the the most talented team here. Yes, the Wildcats have the athletes to win a national title. But the Wildcats could just as easily get bounced Thursday by Kansas State.
Kentucky may advance past this weekend by virtue of superior talent. But to assume the Wildcats will waltz past Kansas State and the winner of Loyola-Chicago versus Nevada is to forget everything that happened between November and February. Wildcats coach John Calipari called this his most rewarding season last week because he has watched a freshman-dominated group grow up as the year has progressed. But don’t forget that this also is a team that on Valentine’s Day was 17–9 and 6–7 in the SEC. It had lost four in a row for the first time in Calipari’s nine-season tenure in Lexington. “Haven't had one of these for a while,” Calipari said of the season following the 76–66 loss at Auburn that capped the streak. “It's probably good for the soul. I wish it was good for someone else’s soul, not mine.” But it may have been something Calipari said following a loss a few days earlier at Texas A&M that proves more prescient. “We play for March,” Calipari told reporters Feb. 10 in College Station. “That’s what we’re playing for. We’ve got to get this thing right. We still have time. Every team is giving us their best shot. So when we get this, we’ll bust through. But it’s getting old right now.”
At the time, Calipari sounded like a guy trying to manage a bunch of freshmen. That’s exactly what he is, only this level of youth is extreme even by Calipari-era Kentucky standards. Of the nine Wildcats who average at least 10 minutes*, seven are freshmen and two are sophomores. All five regular starters are freshmen. This group has the least experience of any team in college basketball since advanced stats guru Ken Pomeroy began tracking experience in the 2006–07 season. This team gets an average of 67 points, 27.7 rebounds and 12.6 assists a game from freshmen. The 2011–12 team that won the national title with Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist got 41.3 points, 22.2 rebounds and 8.3 assists from freshmen. The closest season to this one was the 2013–14 group, which got 61.5 points, 26.4 rebounds and 9.6 assists a game from freshmen. That team entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 8 seed and then made it to the national title game.
*One of those freshmen is forward Jarred Vanderbilt, who has missed five games with a sprained ankle. On Wednesday, Vanderbilt and Calipari seemed skeptical Vanderbilt would contribute much. Meanwhile, Kansas State coach Bruce Weber said he does expect to get some minutes from forward Dean Wade, who has missed three games because of a stress fracture in his foot.
But that 2014 group never bottomed out like this one did. If, like many sports fans, you don’t start paying attention to college basketball until the semifinals of the conference tournaments, the idea of this Kentucky team having an off night might seem unthinkable. The Wildcats shredded their opponents in the SEC tournament and looked like one of the NCAA tournament’s better teams last weekend. But this is also the same team that wrapped the regular season by losing by 13 at Florida.
Calipari knows this, which is why he has tried to impress upon this young team that one bad night ends the magic. Kentucky is facing a Kansas State team that finished fourth in the best pound-for-pound conference in America. The Wildcats from Manhattan start two juniors, two sophomores and a redshirt freshman. They will try to beat up the future NBA players in the white jerseys to see if they can respond after taking a punch. “Right now, seeds don't matter. We've all advanced,” Calipari said Wednesday. “There's 16 of us, and the four in this region is the only four I care about. And really I only care about Kansas State right now. Where they’re seeded, who cares? If they come out and play well, do you think I’m thinking about, ‘They’re an eight seed or a seven or a nine,’ whatever it is? It doesn’t matter. This is a basketball game of two teams that are still standing that will fight until the death to win a basketball game.”
Of the four teams remaining, Kansas State carries the smallest burden of expectation and attention. Kentucky is supposed to win. Loyola-Chicago hadn’t been in the tournament since 1985 and has captured the nation’s imagination. Nevada hasn’t gotten this far since 2004. Kansas State’s Wildcats were supposed to be fodder for overall No. 1-seed Virginia. Instead, they faced UMBC following the Retrievers’ historic upset of the Cavaliers. Kansas State survived that rock fight and may be about to start another one. “There’s been so much chaos in this year’s tournament,” Weber said. “You say, ‘Hey, Kentucky is favored.’ Yeah, fine, so was Virginia. So was Michigan State. So were all the other teams, and they all are not playing and we’re playing.”
Even if the Wildcats get past Kansas State, Saturday won’t be any easier, even though Kentucky might face a No. 11 seed.
Loyola-Chicago didn’t play like an underdog in tourney wins against No. 6-seed Miami and No. 3-seed Tennessee, but since the Ramblers check all the Cinderella boxes, it’s only fitting that calamity befell their carriage Wednesday morning. Their team bus didn’t have a police escort, and the driver got lost looking for the correct entrance to Phillips Arena. This is Atlanta, so presumably the driver was set straight by directions that began with “first you go up Peachtree” and included the phrase “and then you’ll see a Waffle House*.”
*I realize this is at least the third time I’ve worked the Atlanta directions joke—which is funny because it’s at least 88% accurate for all the lost-in-Atlanta situations of the past 30 years—into print during my writing career. But this was the first time it actually fit naturally into the story. So I guess what I’m saying is I’m sorry for shoehorning it in the first two times.
The Ramblers face a Nevada team that, like Kentucky, was built in an unconventional manner. But they do a different kind of unconventional in Reno. Five of the six players in the Wolf Pack’s rotation are transfers. Coach Eric Musselman, who spent most of his career in the NBA and various basketball minor leagues, has taken the maxim “get old and stay old” to heart. He just let someone else break most of his players into college basketball and then let the NCAA’s transfer rules force them to get a year older before they played at Nevada. Four newer transfers currently occupy space on Nevada’s bench and will join the rotation next season.
Both of those teams are experienced and tough. You know why Nevada is old. Loyola-Chicago starts four fourth-year players and a freshman. None of them are as individually talented as any of Kentucky’s regulars, but if Kentucky were to revert to the way it played early last month (or earlier this month in Gainesville), either could knock off the Wildcats and go to the Final Four.
That’s what makes this tournament so fascinating. Kentucky might win the national title or bow out Thursday, and neither result would seem all that surprising. “We’re excited to be here still playing,” Calipari said. “My challenge is making sure these kids don’t drink that poison, that poison being we have an easy road. There are no easy roads in this tournament. If they drink that poison, we’ll be done Thursday. If they don’t drink the poison, it’ll be a dogfight on Thursday, and let’s see what happens.”