Well, Thursday didn’t disappoint us, did it? The real start of the NCAA Tournament brought big finishes, a couple of upsets and all kinds of sweet, delicious Big Blue goodness in our beloved Commonwealth. Kentucky escaped a disciplined and somewhat lucky Princeton squad thanks to some heroics from Brandon Knight just a shortwhile after another blue Kentucky team made the Bluegrass proud by sending home little brother. Donnie Tyndall’s Morehead State team backed up their coaches confidence and knocked off Louisville, thanks to a pair of big plays in the final seconds from their two best players. Kenneth Faried stood tall on Mike Marra’s final desperation attempt, but it was a three-pointer by senior Demonte Harper with 4.2 seconds left that won the game for the Eagles and restored order again in the world of Kentucky basketball. Given the circumstances, it was a tremendous play by Harper and one that earns him a place in NCAA Tournament lore. Given the fact that he’d struggled to make only two of nine shots to that point after averaging 26 points in the first two games, Harper’s confidence in his play-making is even more commendable. The Eagles now get a date with the Richmond Spiders Saturday for a shot at the Sweet 16.
Now onto a few UK notes…
– As was the case with most of the SEC Tournament, the Cats were again carried by the veteran duo of Darius Miller and Josh Harrellson. For all of the attention given to UK’s freshmen this season – all of it deserved – the emergence on Miller and Jorts during the most critical stretch of UK’s season might be the biggest story of the year. And, for Kentucky fans, it’s the most enjoyable. Both players have faced adversity since arriving in Lexington despite taking different paths. Miller was a contributor from the time he arrived on campus, but seemed to have his confidence shattered by Billy Gillispie and too often found himself the target of fan frustration as he disappeared for stretches and failed to find any sort of consistency. The low point came in a loss to Ole Miss earlier in the season when he passed up an open three-pointer late in the game. Instead of fading away as many expected him to do, the junior from Maysville instead used that as a turning point and has been neck-and-neck with Brandon Knight as Kentucky’s most potent and clutch scorer. Jorts, meanwhile, was essentially a non-factor and only made his way onto the court because the Cats had no one else to turn to. Like Miller, he’s shown up in a big way and given the Cats more than they would have expected. Coach Cal makes headlines every year for sending freshmen to the NBA, but the development of Miller and Harrellson might be his most impressive work yet. For Kentucky, it couldn’t have come at a better time. For Kentucky fans, it couldn’t have happened to two more deserving players. Part of what makes college basketball so special is seeing young men develop and successfully live out their dreams. Miller and Jorts are doing that right now and it’s a wonderful thing.
– With Kentucky’s win over Princeton, they now move on to face West Virginia again and earn a chance at getting a little revenge for last season’s loss in the Elite Eight. We’ll hear a lot between now and Saturday about Kentucky’s improved shooting this year being a key to knocking off the Mountaineers, but that might not be the most telling stat. If Kentucky wants to advance to the Sweet 16, they’ll have to clamp down defensively again against a team that struggles to make shots. West Virginia shoots an awful 42% from the field as a team, which ranks them as 228th in the nation. The Mountaineers make up for that with rebounding and some defensive power of their own, but Kentucky seemed to rise to the challenge against Alabama and Ole Miss, who play a similar game. If they can put together anything similar to the offensive output they displayed in those two SEC Tournament games against physical teams and rebound as a team, they should be fine. But it’s all going to start on defense, where they’ve finally realized they can win ball games. The Mountaineers present yet another challenge, but this team appears to be more than capable of accepting it.
– Vegas released their odds for Saturday’s game and Kentucky opened as a three-point underdog to the Mountaineers, but quickly moved to a four-point favorite. For all the reaons listed above and the strong UK crowd that should be in attendance, it’s not crazy to think of UK as the favorite. Considering they’re the higher seed, it doesn’t seem all that nuts at all, actually.
– As noted below, the Cats and Mountainers will tip off at 12:15 Saturday. The early game will be broadcast on CBS and will be followed by Florida and UCLA.
– Overall, it was a mixed bag for the SEC on Thursday as Florida coasted and Vandy was upset again. Vandy’s loss to Richmond marked the first time a team had lost three straight years as a five seed or better in the round of 64 and seemed to be the start of a massive movement by the media to declare Kevin Stallings chances at a major job dead. Meanwhile, Florida’s pasting of UC-Santa Barbara had the whole world declaring they were worthy of a two-seed. Regardless of how true either are, it was a one-day microcosm of SEC basketball. Sometimes it’s really good. Sometimes it’s really bad. And it’s probably not changing anytime soon.
– In some notable non-basketball news, Ohio State’s Jim Tressel requested a five-game suspension after the NCAA upheld the same punishment for his players. Though they were reprimanded for different crimes against the NCAA monarchy, the Ohio State coach apparently thought it was only fair that they serve the same sentence. One person who wasn’t impressed with Tressel’s public display of self-sacrifice was Clay Travis, who Tweeted this: “Jim Tressel is relying on y’all — and ESPN — being dumb. Five games isn’t enough for what he did. He’s finished.” I can’t say I disagree. At least with the first half.
That’s it for now. Stay tuned to KSR all day as we get you set for another round of fun in the sun in Tampa and another shot at Bob Huggins. Matt will get things going with what could be the greatest episode of Kentucky Sports Radio yet at 10am on Talk Radio 1080. In the meantime, take a few minutes to appreciate the trainwreck that has become Lesley Visser. I thought she showed up looking like Tawny Kitaen after a week-long bender with Whitesnake, but ABC’s Kent Spencer had a better take. She’s become Randy “The Ram” Robinson. Ouch.
See you in a few..