Photo via SneakerNews.com.
We already saw the best tournament we could ever hope to see, and it happened a year and a half ago.
Of course, that’s not to say that games, or even tournaments, can’t and won’t be exciting in spite of less-than-storybook matchups. The ’98 Comeback Cats team is the best proof of that, even if you discount that they avenged a 6-year old loss to Duke. Tubby, in his first year, led Kentucky to ridiculous come-from-behind wins that gave us all a collective heart attack and is probably one of the best Kentucky stories in decades. But those wins, minus the one against Duke, came against Stanford and Utah. Not exactly rife with drama.
So games might be better, or more exciting. But, just looking at quality of opponents, could it get any better than 2012?
The first weekend of the tournament was less than competitive, with double-digit wins over pretty heavy underdogs. However, being able to play against Western Kentucky was something that a lot of Kentucky natives, and to my knowledge, Hilltopper fans really enjoyed. Nobody thought that Big Red could actually win that game, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t fun. And it was in Louisville, so everybody that wanted to go see it, could. Follow that up with an Iowa State team that provided more entertainment than most Round-of-32 opponents do with Royce White, and there was a lot of fun to be had just in the first weekend.
Indiana in the Sweet 16 was about as perfect as it could get. Looking to avenge their only regular season loss, the Wildcats played Indiana’s game, and did it better than the Hoosiers, looking almost flawless offensively. Baylor was maybe the only underwhelming opponent of the tournament, considering it was a blowout in the Elite 8. Good team, disappointing game (story-wise).
But all of that pales in comparison to the Final Four. The Louisville game was the biggest individual basketball event to happen to the state of Kentucky. The national attention on old men fighting over loyalties and the week-long break that allowed tensions to simmer to a boil absolutely wreaked havoc on the state, and it was all fantastic. There are a lot of games that I like to watch in large groups, but that wasn’t one of them. The consequences if we’d lost would have been awful. But we didn’t, so we can look back on that week as one of the best times to ever be a Kentucky fan. And finally, the championship game against Kansas pitted two of college basketball’s most prestigious programs against each other in a rematch of championship coaches from 2008. It’s hard for casual college hoops fans to watch a championship game when Butler is involved (no offense), but that wasn’t a concern in 2012. Kentucky and Kansas are two of maybe four teams in modern college basketball that everyone knows, and would want to watch. That the game itself wasn’t very competitive (especially in the first half) was the only thing keeping it from legendary status.
The quality of opponent, their relationship to the Kentucky program, and the story lines involved in the THREE rematches made the last two weekends of the 2012 NCAA tournament about as rich as it can get for a Kentucky fan. I’m not saying you won’t find better games; after winning by no less than 8 points through the whole tournament, it’s almost inevitable that there will be better games in the future. But I just don’t see how the setup itself, the rivals involved, and the path that Kentucky navigated en route to a title could possibly be any better. If it had been Duke in the Elite 8 instead of Baylor, then that’s about as perfect as you can get. But who was disappointed to see them lose in the first round to Lehigh? Anybody? Of course not.
Individual games might, and hopefully will, be better, but I’m convinced that no tournament run could ever match the drama of 2012. Please, discuss.