East Region Reset: Simply put, Kentucky is better than the rest

Tuesday March 23rd, 2010


A year from now, John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson will be playing against Kobe and LeBron. But first, they'll go to-to-toe with a cast of Ivy League scholars. With all due respect to West Virginia and Washington, the story of this week's East Regional games in Syracuse, N.Y., is Thursday night's fascinating showdown between top seed Kentucky and No. 12 seed Cornell.

Both teams dominated the opposition in their first two NCAA tournament games -- but you pretty much expected that from Kentucky. The Big Red, on the other hand, you had to see to believe. This team isn't some fluky mid-major. Cornell posted the highest shooting percentage (61.1) of any Wisconsin opponent in nine years and outrebounded the fourth-seeded Badgers 27-20.

Still, the Big Red be considerable underdogs against the Wildcats, and understandably so. Their first two opponents were slow-down defensive teams with limited options offensively. Wall and Cousins are two of the most athletic scorers in the country. Cornell is more experienced (four senior starters), but the Wildcats' reliance on freshmen hasn't slowed them down to date.

But what makes the matchup so intriguing, so historic (Cornell is the first Ivy school to make it this far since 1979), is that the two teams represent such diametrically opposite facets of the college sports environment. John Calipari's uber-talented team is, to put it bluntly, a band of mercenaries. It's no secret Wall, Cousins and fellow freshman Eric Bledsoe are simply passing through Lexington on their way to the NBA. Cornell is a rare bastion for the sport's few remaining purists, a talented team whose members aren't even on athletic scholarships, and most of whom "will go pro in something other than sports," as those NCAA ads like to espouse.

Is it still possible in 2010 for an old-fashioned team of "student athletes" to compete with a more standard team of "athletes who moonlight as students?" We're about to find out.

THE UNDERDOG: Not Cornell -- Washington

Numerous basketball experts (Bill Self, Jim Boeheim, Jay Bilas) felt the Big Red weren't seeded high enough on Selection Sunday. No one was saying that about the 11th-seeded Huskies, who may not even have made the field without winning the Pac-10 tournament. Clearly, Washington is a much better team now than it was for most of the season. It snuck by No. 6 seed Marquette in the first round on Quincy Pondexter's last-second floater with 1.7 seconds left, then destroyed 3 seed New Mexico 82-64. But Washington would conceivably have to take out the region's top three seeds consecutively to reach the Final Four. That's a tall order.

BURNING QUESTION: Just how good is Kentucky?

Now that prohibitive pre-tourney favorite Kansas is out, the 34-2 Wildcats carry that unofficial title. And after dominant performances against East Tennessee State (100-71) and Wake Forest (90-60), much of the chatter regarding Kentucky seems to have turned from nervousness about their youth to adulation over their talent. As the Lexington Herald-Leader pointed out, the Wildcats set several milestones over the weekend that hadn't been achieved since Rick Pitino's 1996 championship team, generally regarded as the greatest in school history.

But lest we get carried away, remember that it was only two games ago that the Wildcats needed overtime to survive NIT team Mississippi State and have been notoriously up-and-down. They may well achieve greatness, but any of their upcoming foes could bring an end to the hype.

GAME BREAKER: Da'Sean Butler, West Virginia

There's no mistaking the identity of West Virginia's go-to guy, as evidenced yet again in the Mountaineers' second-round win over Missouri. Butler, who's surpassed the 20-point mark in four of his team's past seven games, sprung for 28 and killed the Tigers both inside (hitting 12-of-13 free throws) and outside (4-of-9 from behind the arc). If needed, he'll put his team on his back, especially in the closing minutes.

INTRIGUING MATCHUP: Kentucky-West Virginia

If the higher seeds both advance, this has all the makings of an epic Elite Eight matchup. The teams finished the regular season ranked No. 2 and No. 6 respectively in the AP poll. The Wildcats' star power is well documented, but WVU's Butler has shown over the past two weeks he belongs on any All-America team himself. And the contrast in styles will be intensified. Bob Huggins' defensive-minded Mountaineers have already stifled a barrage of high-flying foes (Ohio State, Villanova, Georgetown, Missouri) but would face their toughest test yet in attempting to slow down Wall and bang with Cousins and Patterson.


The Big Red won't have to travel far -- their campus is only about an hour from Syracuse -- but that doesn't necessarily mean the crowd will be in its favor. Kentucky fans caravan like no other school's, and while only the most crazily optimistic Cornell fans saw this Sweet 16 trip coming, Wildcats followers likely bought up their tickets as soon as the bracket was announced.


That's Washington's three-point shooting percentage over its current nine-game winning streak, up from 31.4 percent during its first 26 games and good enough to rank in the top 10 nationally had the Huskies shot at that level all year.

THE PICK: Kentucky

No deep explanation necessary -- the Wildcats are better than everyone else. West Virginia's defense won't make life easy for the 'Cats if the two meet, but Wall, an underrated defender, could cause more problems for the Mountaineers' ball-handlers than they will for him.


STAPLES: Duke has talent, tools to take South WINN: With Johnson healthy, 'Cuse will prevail in West GLOCKNER: OSU will prevail in upset-ridden Midwest

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.