Kentucky Earns No. 1 Overall NCAA Tournament Seed Despite SEC Title Loss
THE COLIN FLY, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — John Calipari says while Kentucky is the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament the NCAA selection committee "stacked the region" the Wildcats will be playing in.
The Kentucky coach says that's OK.
"I keep getting everybody saying, 'We're the toughest region.' But that's to be expected," Calipari said Sunday night standing on his backyard patio. "The first game will be hard, the second game will be like a war. If you're lucky enough to move on from there, it's one team after another. ... We've played all comers right now. I imagine wherever we go there's going to be a lot of blue."
A few hours after losing the Southeastern Conference championship to Vanderbilt in New Orleans, the Wildcats (32-2) gathered at Calipari's house to regroup and prepare for the tournament.
They don't know who they'll face next, but have some intriguing matchups ahead if they get on another roll.
"We've got a lot of competition and we've just got to take every game serious and we've got a little bit of motivation behind a lot of games to try to give ourselves more of an edge," forward Terrence Jones said. "It should just be fun."
Their first opponent will be decided when a pair of 16 seeds — Mississippi Valley State and Western Kentucky — square off in Dayton, Ohio, on Tuesday as part of the four first-round games.
For now, Kentucky is focusing on itself after Sunday's setback in New Orleans, which hosted the SEC tournament and the site of this year's Final Four.
Freshmen Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and the rest of Calipari's talented squad squandered a seven-point lead late in a 71-64 loss to the Commodores earlier Sunday to snap a 24-game winning streak. The Wildcats will not practice on Monday after playing three games in three days.
"I kind of feel like it's kind of tough going into a tournament on a win streak like that," freshman Marquis Teague said. "It was kind of like it was bound to happen, we're just glad it happened before we got to the tournament."
The South regional is fraught with tough opponents from the Wildcats' past and present.
Kentucky, which locked up its 11th No. 1 seed in its history, will head 75 miles west to Louisville to start its NCAA tournament against either an in-state school in the Hilltoppers or Mississippi Valley State, led by former Kentucky player Sean Woods, on Thursday.
If the Wildcats get past that first game as expected, either Iowa State or defending national champion Connecticut awaits them.
The other teams in the regional in order of seeding are Duke, Baylor, Indiana, Wichita State, UNLV, Notre Dame, Iowa State, Connecticut, Xavier, Colorado, VCU, New Mexico State, South Dakota State, Lehigh and the two 16s.
"That can hurt you worrying about the other teams and not worrying about the opponent you're facing," Davis said. "That can definitely hurt you if you think you're automatically going to the next round."
The Hoosiers were the only team to beat Kentucky before Sunday. Also potentially haunting the Wildcats in their bracket is Duke and the 20th anniversary of The Shot by Christian Laettner that lifted the Blue Devils over the Wildcats in overtime of the 1992 East Regional finals. Woods' basket in '92 gave the Wildcats a one-point lead with 2.1 seconds left that set up the epic finale.
"I know The Shot," Davis said.
Even if Davis hadn't been born. In fact, none of Calipari's third straight No. 1 recruiting class had been born when that game was played and this Kentucky group is a favorite to make a run at a trip to the national title game.
Beyond the freshmen class of Davis, Kidd-Gilchrist, Teague and Kyle Wiltjer, the Wildcats also returned sophomores Doron Lamb and Jones along with senior Darius Miller. All seven are eventually expected to play in the NBA, and all but Wiltjer may check their draft stock when this season ends.
Kentucky reached the Final Four for the 14th time last year, falling to eventual champion Connecticut in the national semifinals. This group is in the best position to break the school's 13-year title drought and bring home the eighth crown in Kentucky's illustrious history.
Losing to Vanderbilt may have also put history on Kentucky's side.
No team with a winning streak as long as the 24-game run the Wildcats were on has won the title since Indiana's perfect season in 1976. And the only other time the Wildcats lost the SEC title game to Vanderbilt, they went on to win the national title in 1951.
The players are looking to put a positive spin on the setback.
"It'll get us more focused now. Now we know how it feels to lose. We didn't lose in a long time," Lamb said. "Now we know how it feels and we don't like this feeling so we're going to try to win these next six games."
Kentucky ran roughshod over the Southeastern Conference by going 16-0 with the nation's stingiest defense by field goal percentage and by leading the NCAA in blocked shots.
The collapse against the Commodores provides at least a temporary pause for fans filling out the final line of their brackets.
"This team has responded. Today for the first time in the last four minutes of the game we didn't make shots. To be honest with you, I was stunned," Calipari said. "I'd rather it happen now than the next weekend or the following weekend."
AP Sports Writer Brett Martel in New Orleans contributed to this report.