April 4, 2014

Bob Lutz: Eights aren’t often great, but Kentucky could be an exception

Eight seeds in the NCAA Tournament rarely grow. They are the definition of mediocrity, college basketball teams that rarely stick around for more than the opening weekend.

Eight seeds in the NCAA Tournament rarely grow. They are the definition of mediocrity, college basketball teams that rarely stick around for more than the opening weekend.

They’re here, then they’re gone. And they’re almost always forgotten.

But every once in a while, a team like Kentucky shows up as an 8 seed, even though don’t walk or talk like an 8. The only thing about the Wildcats that looked remotely like an 8 seed was their 10 regular-season defeats and the team’s battle with consistency.

The Wildcats have a future NBA player everywhere you look, a coach who has cut down the nets and a decadently-rich tradition that makes you want to lick the bowl. As we suspected, it was just a matter of time. These young players have turned it up a notch in March and now perhaps April.

Kentucky has navigated its way through Kansas State, Wichita State, Louisville and Michigan to reach the Final Four, where the Wildcats will face Wisconsin in the national semifinals on Saturday. And although Florida is still my pick to win, you have to wonder whether the Gators, who play Connecticut, would be able to get past Kentucky a fourth time if it comes to that.

When Kentucky showed up on the 8 line when the tournament field was announced on March 16, I did a double take. That’s probably because the Wildcats were in the same Midwest region in which Wichita State was the No. 1 seed. I saw the potential collision, whether it was against Kentucky or Kansas State. I suspected it would be Kentucky and it was obvious the Shockers were going to be in tough.

They were. Kentucky beat Wichita State 78-76 in one of the two or three best games of the tournament. And it was at that point that the Wildcats became a national championship contender.

Kentucky is the 11th team seeded eighth or lower to reach the Final Four since 1979. Villanova, an 8 seed in 1985, is the lowest-seeded team to win a national title. In fact, it’s been 17 years since a team seeded below three — Arizona was a 4-seed in 1997 — has won a championship.

No. 1 seeds have won six of the past seven titles and 17 of the past 22. That could still happen this year if Florida goes all the way.

But what of 8 seeds?

They’re the midsection of the tournament, always matching up against a 9 seed in the first round. The reward of winning that game is to get to face a top seed and, most likely, a quick trip home.

As you would expect, those 8-9 match-ups have been highly competitive over the years. The 9s actually hold a 61-59 advantage over the 8s since the tournament field was expanded from 53 teams to 64 in 1985.

But only 11 of those 59 8-line first-round winners have won a second tournament game over a top seed.

Surprisingly, though, No. 8 seeds do well if they can manage to reach the Sweet 16. In those games, the 8s are 8-3, proof that there are times when the selection committee gets things terribly wrong. Five 8 seeds have won four tournament games to reach the Final Four; two have notched five wins to play in the championship game and … Villanova is the one and only No. 8 to become No. 1.

The 2000 NCAA Tournament was unique because two No. 8 seeds, North Carolina and Wisconsin, reached the Final Four, the only time that’s happened. Neither team made it to the championship game. North Carolina lost to Florida in the semifinals while Wisconsin was beaten by eventual champion Michigan State.

Mostly, a No. 8 seed is a ship that passes in the night, a tree that falls in the woods, a father’s voice to his teenage son. They provide barely a ripple.

Kentucky, though, has been different in this tournament. The Wildcats are making lots of noise and their game against Wisconsin represents two vastly different approaches to college basketball. The one-and-dones of Kentucky against the four-years-or-bust Badgers of Bo Ryan, a team so fundamentally sound and experienced that they could put on a clinic against this upstart Wildcats bunch.

But I don’t think so. Kentucky has that look. The Harrison twins, Andrew and Aaron, are playing as well as anyone in the tournament. Big Julis Randle is difficult to stop inside. Even without Willie Cauley-Stein and his size, so effective defensively, the Wildcats look too talented for Wisconsin.

Florida, provided its survives UConn, is another matter. The Gators have won four tournament games by 12, 16, 11 and 10 points since holding on to nip Kentucky 61-60 in the final of the SEC Tournament. Previously, Florida beat the Wildcats by 10 and 19 points.

Kentucky has gotten better. Florida, which beat the Wildcats by six games to win the SEC championship, have been good from the start.

It’d be fun to see a fourth meeting Monday night. And to see if a so-called No. 8 seed can pull this off.

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