Cue the comparisons to 1996. As soon as the Wildcats lost to Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament final on Sunday, the members of Big Blue Nation suffered a collective case of déjà vu. The Untouchables, the Rick Pitino-coached group that included Derek Anderson, Tony Delk and Antoine Walker, dropped the SEC tournament final to Mississippi State and then proceeded to buzz saw the NCAA tournament field. Current Kentucky coach John Calipari's UMass team -- which handed Kentucky its only regular-season loss on Nov. 28, 1995 -- provided the stiffest challenge, but the Wildcats ultimately dispatched the Minutemen in the national semifinals.
The current Kentucky team may also face the squad that provided its only regular-season loss. No. 4 seed Indiana could meet the Wildcats in the Sweet 16. It has become part of Kentucky lore that Pitino tanked the SEC tourney final to ensure his vastly superior team was motivated to rip through the NCAA tournament. The 2012 team certainly didn't lose to Vanderbilt on purpose, but the loss may serve the same function. "For me, I definitely hate the feeling of losing," Wildcats forward Anthony Davis said Sunday. "To lose here, especially in a championship when we were this close to winning it all, it just hurts. So I hope we can take this loss, learn from it, and have this as motivation going into the tournament."
Calipari worried that his players were getting arrogant during their 24-game winning streak. He hopes the Vandy loss brought them back to earth. "My comment to them after is, 'Maybe I'll have your attention now,'" Calipari said. Kentucky's first two SEC tourney wins probably also drew the attention of the rest of the NCAA tournament field. LSU and Florida pushed the Wildcats in ways they hadn't been pushed in SEC play. Even if Kentucky had beaten Vandy on Sunday, the Wildcats wouldn't have seemed as unbeatable as they did at the end of the regular season. That's fine with Calipari, too. He wants his players to know that.
"We just missed shots and, folks, these kids are not machines," Calipari said. "They're not computers. It's not automatic. And how about this? Maybe now everybody realizes we're not invincible. We're like everybody else out there."
The first of those last two sentences is true. The second is not. Kentucky is better than everybody else -- but not so much better that the Wildcats can coast to a title.
The three participants in last year's Final Four that made this year's tourney (Connecticut, Kentucky and VCU) will play in the South Region. Kemba Walker is gone, and the Huskies make a lot of questionable choices on the court, but no one wants to play UConn right now.
Remember, the Huskies nearly upended top-seeded Syracuse in the Big East tournament last Thursday. If they had, they might have repeated their 2011 feat of five wins in five days and entered the NCAA tournament on a massive high.
This team isn't as good as last year's, but Jeremy Lamb, Alex Oriakhi and company have beaten Kentucky on the big stage. UConn coach Jim Calhoun missed more than a month because of back surgery, but the Huskies are 3-1 since his return, and the only loss was a 58-55 defeat at the hands of a No. 1 seed. Few thought UConn could pull off a national title last year, but the experience many of these Huskies gained winning the tourney could tear apart some brackets this year. Of course, given its more recent history, it's entirely possible Connecticut could do something boneheaded and lose to Iowa State -- an intriguing collection of transfers and under-recruited players coached by former Cyclone Fred "The Mayor" Hoiberg.
The Bears are talented enough to win the entire tournament, but mercurial enough to lay an egg early. The length of Quincy Acy, Quincy Miller and Perry Jones III should give unfamiliar teams trouble. So should the range of Pierre Jackson and Brady Heslip. But when Baylor doesn't have it on a given night, things can get ugly. Four of Baylor's last six losses are by 15 points or more. Those losses all came to Missouri and Kansas, but the Bears still need to be on guard against lesser foes.
The Shockers will face Shaka Smart and the team that shocked college basketball in 2011. For VCU, this is a very different team than the one that raced from the First Four to the Final Four last year. Guard Bradford Burgess is the only returning starter, but the Rams have won 17 of 18 and guaranteed their place in the field by winning the Colonial Athletic Association tournament.
Wichita State, the regular-season champion of the Missouri Valley Conference, hasn't been to the tournament since a Sweet 16 run in 2006, but Shockers coach Gregg Marshall has plenty of tourney experience. Marshall led Winthrop to seven NCAA tournaments, beating sixth-seeded Notre Dame in the first round of the 2007 tournament.
Kentucky's Davis is the best player in this region -- as well as the entire country -- but because he plays in the post, it isn't likely he'll hit a buzzer-beater or go crazy from three-point range. Rivers can. We learned the freshman was fearless when he stroked a three-pointer over Tyler Zeller at the buzzer to beat North Carolina in the Dean Dome. Rivers led the Blue Devils in scoring (15.3 points a game), and his frequent forays into the lane opened up the offense for his teammates.
NBA scouts invaded the Patriot League to watch the 6-foot-3 McCollum, who is fifth in the nation in scoring with 21.9 points a game. McCollum can squeeze off a shot from just about anywhere, and smothering defense doesn't seem to bother him. As a freshman in 2010, McCollum scored a game-high 26 in an NCAA tournament loss to top-seeded Kansas.
Calipari probably had the most talented team in last year's Final Four, but he couldn't reach the title game. He did reach the title game with Memphis in 2008, but poor free-throw shooting set up Mario's Miracle and a Kansas title. This time, Calipari once again has the best collection of talent in the tournament. Can he break through and win a title?
The current players on Indiana's roster have combined to play zero NCAA tournament games. Considering the school's basketball history, that's pretty amazing. But that's how badly an NCAA scandal -- in this case, Kelvin Sampson's happy dialing fingers -- can damage a program. Tom Crean has the Hoosiers back where they belong.
Whether the Wildcats needed another loss to attain the proper mindset is highly debatable, but they got one. It would be shocking if this group didn't come into the tournament with a laser focus and punch its ticket to New Orleans.