By Dick Gabriel
Big Blue Sports Network
Everybody take a breath.
You howled over Kentucky’s NCAA tournament draw the moment it flashed across the screen, and likely you’ve been thrashing about ever since. The conspiracy theorists are at full throttle and the Big Blue Nation is tweeting, posting, messaging and bashing.
And now, along comes some schlub to tell you that UK’s slot in the NCAA field of 68, with ALL things considered, makes some sense.
That would be me.
Argue ad nauseam which team has the “easiest” bracket. Critics immediately leap to the conclusion that Duke, because it plays in Charlotte, will waltz to the Final Four. Never mind the fact that, no matter where Duke ended up, as a one seed it likely would skate to the regional semi-final. The Blue Devils were sent to the West, which plays in Anaheim. They couldn’t be farther from home.
Others point out that, within the same region are Texas, red-hot Connecticut and San Diego State, which will be playing close to home and just might be the toughest #2 seed. It’s an argument that will become crystal-clear on April 4.
But know this: The biggest reason, it says here, that Kentucky is a four seed playing in Tampa, is YOU, Mr. and Ms. B.B. Nation Member. The NCAA Tournament needs you, and you’re only too happy to oblige.
Forget about the fact that the Wildcats won the Southeastern Conference Tournament. The brackets were all but set on Saturday; maybe Friday, with slots held open for potential upsets. Think UK got no credit for winning? You’re probably right.
That’s why C.M. Newton, the former UK athletics director and long-time member of the men’s basketball selections committee, lobbied the SEC to slide the tourney back one day and play the finals on Saturday, thus giving more weight to the value of the championship. And yet, they still play it on Sunday.
Why? For the same reason the Cats open up in the St. Petersburg Times Forum: Television.
The NCAA re-upped with CBS on the men’s basketball tournament, saying, “No, thanks,” to ESPN’s millions in large part because CBS agreed to air every game. The network obviously doesn’t have enough air time of its own, so it partnered with Ted Turner’s family of channels. TBS, TNT and TruTV will be carrying games that don’t appear on the mother ship.
Now check the bracket schedule. Where do they play games on the opening day of the tournament? Tampa, Washington, D.C., Tucson and Denver. That means the first games that go on the air Thursday MUST come from the two cities on the East coast. With a noon ET airtime, games that started in Tucson (Mountain Standard Time) would begin at 9 a.m. In Denver (Mountain Daylight Time), it would be 10 a.m.
There’s no way Kentucky was going to land a #1 or #2 seed, even WITH the SEC tourney championship in hand. So look at the #3 seeds: Syracuse, Connecticut, Purdue and Brigham Young. UConn clearly deserves a three for its grueling run through the toughest conference tournament. And the Huskies landed in the East, playing in D.C.
You could successfully argue UK’s strength of schedule and body of work against the other three teams, but the regional placement of the three does not lend itself to TV. The Cats in Tampa, on CBS Thursday, guarantees big ratings on opening day. No way will you have to search for TruTV to see your beloved Blue.
The same holds true for the other #4 seeds. Is UK better than Texas? Wisconsin? Louisville? Argue all you want, but it doesn’t matter. It all comes back to that big, flat, high-definition screen in your den.
Perhaps the greatest source of bitterness among the Blue Fan Group is the #2 seed afforded Florida, on the same day the Wildcats waxed UF in Atlanta. But keep in mind, the Gators won the Southeastern Conference regular season championship, and they won it handily. Winning a league title should carry more weight than winning the post-season title. But a two seed?
Truly a puzzlement, until you factor in a little-known guideline available to NCAA committee members: They are allowed to move any team up or down ONE seeding slot, in order to facilitate the best brackets possible.
I’m guessing they moved Florida up to a #2 instead of down to a #4 (remember, this likely was done on Saturday, BEORE the tourney championship game was played) so the Gators could be sent to Tampa (the same pod as the Wildcats, although Florida plays into the Southeast Regional in New Orelans). And they’ll make that trip to the St. Pete Dome for one of the same reasons the Wildcats will: Ticket sales.
Advance sales in Washington, D.C., and Tampa were alarmingly low – until now. There’s already been a run on both, thanks to UConn fans who can jump on the train and head for the nation’s capitol, and Big Blue backers, who know every inch of I-75.
Some UK fans are offended by the notion that by virtue of the “S-Curve,” which has the weakest #4 in the same bracket with the strongest #1, Kentucky would be considered the worst of the #4 seeds. Once again, the committee strives to use the curve, but abandons it when needed.
Of course, it didn’t help much when current committee chairman Gene Smith used the word “slid” when discussing UK. “Kentucky is a very good ballclub,” he said. “But when it came to the votes, they slid a little bit.” He didn’t say the team was sliding. He said it slid in the eyes of the committee members, when the votes were tallied. Which is even more cryptic.
The most complicating factor with which the committee wrestled might have been the fact that the Big East landed 11 bids. Deserved? Doubtful, but it happened. And each team should be judged on its own merit, without any thought of conference affiliation. As SEC Commissioner Mike Slive told me in Atlanta Saturday, a team should not be penalized because of the conference in which it plays.
But it had to work a hardship when it came time to seed and bracket the tournament. As UK fans all too grimly remember, the committee has endeavored, since 1986, to keep intra-conference opponents on opposite ends of the tournament as long as possible. The ’86 memory is a sad one for Wildcat fans – that’s when Kentucky had to get past Alabama a fourth time (two regular season games, plus SEC Tournament, then NCAA) before it played LSU for a fourth time as well, losing to the Tigers in the regional championship game, one step from the Final Four.
That said, it had to be wicked tough to keep Big East teams separated as much as possible.
So, look at it this way: If Kentucky was a three in the East, the Wildcats would be facing Indiana State instead of Princeton. Anybody want to argue that one? I’m at a loss. A victory puts you in a matchup probably with Xavier, instead of West Virginia. Personally, I like UK’s chances against the Mountaineers’ 1-3-1 zone this time, if it gets that far (and if it does, do you believe WVU will play that defense against the likes of Doron Lamb, Brandon Knight and Darius Miller?)
After that, as a four it’s Ohio State and then probably North Carolina. As a three, it’s likely UNC and then OSU – same teams, different order. In the Elite Eight, they’re all brutal.
Nobody said the Road to Houston would be easy.