March 11, 2012

Kentucky looks for eighth championship

Kentucky will open the 2012 tournament as the No. 1 overall seed in search of the school's eighth national championship. On the way, they'll find plenty of storylines.

Our list starts, as they say, at the beginning. The Wildcats will face the winner of Mississippi Valley State and Western Kentucky in the first round.

1. Mississippi Valley State is coached by Kentucky "Unforgettable" Sean Woods. The Delta Devils (21-12, Southwest Athletic Conference) began the season 1-11 but has won 20 of 21 since. Woods played in Kentucky's iconic 1992 game against Duke in the Elite Eight.

2. Western Kentucky also bounced back after a slow start. Head coach Ken McDonald was fired in January after the team started 5-11 and Ray Harper was named interim head coach. The interim tag was removed on Feb. 19 despite the Hilltoppers going 4-7 under Harper. WKU is 6-0 since then, and won the Sun Belt tournament. WKU (15-18, 7-9 Sun Belt) enter the NCAA tournament on a hot streak, but still have a losing record overall.

3. Unless Kentucky becomes the first No. 1 seed to fall to a No. 16 seed, they'll face Iowa State or Connecticut in the second round. The Cyclones' (22-10, 10-6 Big 12) Royce White reportedly was prepared to transfer from Minnesota to Kentucky, but his fear of flying kept him from boarding the plane to Lexington. White leads Iowa State in every major statistical category with 13.1 points, 9.2 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 1.2 steals, and .9 blocks per game while shooting 52.1 percent from the field. The 6-foot-8 forward does have a weakness, though. He's shooting only 49 percent from the free throw line this season.

4. Connecticut could be among the most anticipated potential games of the first weekend. It was a Final Four matchup last season, and the Huskies (20-13, 8-10 Big East) are loaded with NBA talent. They were ranked highly in the preseason but slipped on to the bubble before a late-season flurry assured them of a tournament spot. Andre Drummond, Jeremy Lamb, Alex Oriakhi and Shabazz Napier all have legit chances at an NBA career, and DeAndre Daniels was recruited heavily by the Wildcats. There's no Kemba Walker, but still enough talent to keep up with any team in the country on the right day.

5. A revenge game with Indiana looms large as a potential Sweet 16 matchup for the Wildcats. The Hoosiers' (25-8, 11-7 Big 10) were the only team to beat Kentucky in the regular season. A rematch would feature star freshman Cody Zeller against Anthony Davis. The Hoosiers will be without Verdell Jones, done for the season with a knee injury.

6. Wichita State has flown under the radar this season and is overshadowed by some of the bigger names in Kentucky's bracket, but could be dangerous. The Shockers (27-5, 16-2 Missouri Valley Conference) are ranked No. 10 in the nation according to Ken Pomeroy's ratings. For comparison, Vanderbilt is No. 16.

7. All three of 2011's Final Four teams to make the field in 2012 are in the South regional with the Wildcats. Back-to-back national runner-up Butler didn't make the tournament, but Virginia Commonwealth is a No. 12 seed starting the tournament in Portland, Ore. UConn, as previously mentioned, is a potential second round matchup for UK.

8. Baylor is one of the most talented teams in the nation. Perry Jones would have been a lottery pick if he hadn't chosen to return to school, and Quincy Miller is a former Kentucky recruit. The Bears (27-7, 12-6) can keep up with anyone and five of their losses come to two teams (Missouri and Kansas). Their issue is with execution and coaching, as witnessed by the Jayhawks thumping them by a combined 32 points in their first two meetings.

9. History buffs immediately noticed the implications of Duke as the Wildcats' No. 2 seed. It was 20 years ago that Christian Laettner's famous buzzer beater put the Blue Devils in the 1992 Final Four over Kentucky. Duke (27-6, 13-3 ACC) has been pegged by many as vulnerable to an early upset, but there could be enough depth in the frontcourt to create problems for Kentucky. If a similar situation arises as the one 20 years ago, expect John Calipari to cover the inbounds pass.

10. If the Wildcats make it back to the Final Four, Michigan State could await them. The Spartans are the No. 1 seed in the West bracket. That region could feature Louisville, Murray State, Memphis, Marquette and Florida, all teams with strong storylines connected to Kentucky. Missouri, which will join the SEC next year, is the No. 2 seed in the region. The Tigers and Wildcats could give fans a preview of a new rivalry should both make it to New Orleans.

The most obvious rematch candidates should Kentucky make it all the way to the championship game both come in the Midwest region. North Carolina and Kansas both lost to Kentucky in the regular season. Ohio State, a victim of Kentucky's Final Four run in 2011, is the No. 2 seed in the East with Syracuse. The Orange lost to Kentucky in the 1996 championship in the same year Calipari earned his first Final Four, with Massachusetts.

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