ARLINGTON, Texas — Victories over Wisconsin on Saturday and Florida on Monday would do more than make Kentucky national champion. UK could also claim the toughest path to a national championship since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
Given Wisconsin and Florida as Final Four opponents, the cumulative total of the seeds Kentucky defeated in this year’s NCAA Tournament would be 19. The existing record is 20, set by Villanova in 1985. Coincidentally, Villanova was an 8-seed, the worst-seeding for a champion. Kentucky can match that mark, too.
To get to the Final Four, Kentucky beat 9-seed Kansas State, 1-seed Wichita State, 4-seed Louisville and 2-seed Michigan. Wisconsin is a 2-seed. Florida is the tournament’s overall No.1 seed.
“We got here through an absolute mine field,” UK Coach John Calipari said Thursday, “and happened to not step on a mine. I don’t even know what to call it what we just went through.”
Wichita State (35-0), Louisville (31-5) and Michigan (28-8) had a combined won-loss record of 94-13 going into games against Kentucky. Earlier in the week, Calipari said the Cats went through a “gauntlet” to get to the Final Four.
During a teleconference Monday, Calipari recoiled at the suggestion that the Cats might need a momentary pause to refresh. On Thursday, he described his task as keeping the players sharp.
“Now, my whole mission is to make sure we’re not satisfied,” the UK coach said. “That this team is still striving. . . .
“I think we got here by coming together. By absolutely accepting that if we don’t do this together, we’re all going down.”
With the Final Four in a football stadium, questions about the shooting background inevitably arose.
“Shooting does matter in the NCAA Tournament,” said Calipari, who noted how horrid three-point shooting sunk Kentucky against West Virginia in the 2010 NCAA Tournament. That Elite 8 game was played in Syracuse’s Carrier Dome.
Florida Coach Billy Donovan and Connecticut Coach Kevin Ollie applauded the NCAA decision to give teams a 90-minute shootaround on Thursday in addition to the public workout on Friday.
“Back in 2011 down in Houston, we didn’t have a 90-minute practice,” Ollie said of the 2011 Final Four in Reliant Stadium.
Where’s the love?
A reporter asked Calipari why Kentucky seems to engender dislike.
“It’s Kentucky,” he said. “It’s what you buy into if you want to coach at Kentucky or play at Kentucky, You got some guys (reporters?) with agendas. You got some guys that, you know, it’s that program. It’s part of it.”
Calipari and Wisconsin Coach Bo Ryan hinted broadly that the so-called one-and-done rule will be significantly changed soon.
Nothing that he and the UK coach served on the National Association of Basketball Coaches Board of Directors, Ryan said, “I’m sure there’s something coming down the road that’s going to alter that.”
Calipari questioned why so-called one-and-done players are perceived as something less than fully-fledged college athletes.
“Does a player have to be here four years to be a terrific college player?” he asked.
Calipari said new labeling would help.
“The issue of one-and-done has now (gained) a bad connotation,” he said. “So we’re going to break out something new this week to get you guys off this one-and-done so that we can think about (it) in another term, which is trying to help these kids do what they’re trying to do as college students, as where they want their careers to go.”
‘Not a business’
UConn wing Niels Giffey spoke of the value of a four-year college experience.
“I think it’s just a great opportunity to grow as a person and a player on a different level where it’s not all about business,” he said. “Where it’s not about money.
“It’s about family and getting together as a group. . . .
“You will always have that family ad that basis. I think that’s why peop;le should consider taking four years, getting their degree and really making an impact on your university.”
More than once, Ollie noted how UConn had to play at “level 5” against Florida in Saturday’s other semifinal.
“It’s just a championship mentality,” he said. “It’s playing together, playing unselfish, playing as five and not just one. Because sometimes you get to this stage and you want to play as one and you want to go off and be an individual. But that’s not going to work.”