Every March, the brackets come out and it is an annual rite of passage to project your team’s path to a final four. You look at the top seeds, project them to the next lines, and begin to wonder how your team will match up against them. You begin to have a feeling about where your team could trip up and how far they will go.
However, March Madness is just that… madness. Upsets happen, Cinderella stories happen and before you know it; Shaka Smart has 11-seeded VCU in the final four after starting as a play-in game.
Well, actually, I take that back; upsets and brackets opening up to happen to some teams. If you are a Kentucky fan, you may feel differently. I know I have felt like Kentucky seems to get no breaks in seeding, or in their opponents. It turns out I was right, more to come on that.
First, I wanted to look at some teams that benefited from the bracket opening up like a parting of the seas.
As you can see, Florida was a 7-seed that season, meaning a matchup with a 2-seed was looming. However, Norfolk State beat 2-seed Missouri and opened up a cupcake to the sweet 16. They did beat a worthy 3-seed in Marquette to reach the elite-8. Instead of a 1-seed waiting for them, they had 4-seed Louisville. The ‘Cards won the game, but Florida had about as easy of a path to the Final Four as they could have hoped
Louisville 2013 – National Champs
Nobody has had a ‘luckier’ path to a title than the 2013 Louisville Cardinals (at least since Cal has been at UK). Well, I am getting ahead of myself because we are still waiting on NCAA punishment from the escort scandal so this could be a moot championship.
However, they were a worthy 1-seed that year, but they also got many breaks. They did have to play the 8-seed in round two, but they had to play a 12-seed (Oregon) for an elite-8 birth. To their credit, they did beat 2-seed Duke to reach the final four, which is a worthy accomplishment. Fortunately for the ‘Cards, it would be the toughest team they’d face. In the Final 4, they had to beat 9-seed Wichita State and 4-seed Michigan.
Florida (again) 2014
To the Gators credit, they were a 1-seed this season so they earned a somewhat easier road to a final four than most. However, the way the bracket was destroyed before their elite-8 game was epic. Florida had beaten #4 UCLA in the sweet-16 and what *should* have been standing in front of them for a Final Four birth was either 3-seed Syracuse or 2-seed Kansas. However, both blue bloods choked games away to 11-seed Dayton and 10-seed Stanford. This set up the Gators to face either an 11 or 10 seed for a Final 4 berth.
North Carolina and Syracuse 2016
First, the Tar Heels… the 1-seed fighting ole Roy’s got the 9-seed in the second round. Then they got the 5-seed in the sweet 16. However, Wisconsin took out 2-seed Xavier in the second round and the Tar Heels only had to beat 6-seed fellow ACC foe Notre Dame for a Final 4 berth. To add to their luck, they had to face a 10-seeded Syracuse to advance to the title game. Of course, we all remember the insane ending with Villanova at the last second… but in case you did forget:
The aforementioned Syracuse did not necessarily *earn* their way to Houston that season. They did beat a worthy 7-seed Dayton but then had to face 15-seed Middle TN State after they had upset 2-seed Michigan State. After that, they only had to dispatch of 11-seed Gonzaga before a great victory over 1-seed Virginia. Beating UVA is a great win, but they had to beat a 7, 15, and an 11 to get there.
Gonzaga was a great team last season; this is not so much an indictment on them as it is the committee and unfortunately the conference they play in. They were THE only team to ever reach a NCAA final without having to play a Top-10 team. That is astounding. I can understand their regular season schedule preventing that, but not including the NCAA tournament.
In the AP poll era (since 1948), Gonzaga is the first team to make it to the title game without having faced a top-10 team all season. pic.twitter.com/QO5j8Nfndt
— ESPN College BBall (@ESPNCBB) April 3, 2017
Gonzaga had a 16-seed, then a team that had never made a NCAA Tournament (Northwestern) in round two. They did beat a legitimate West Virginia team to reach the elite-8, but they had 11-seed Xavier waiting on them. After beating them, they had 7-seed South Carolina waiting in the final four for a national championship appearance.
North Carolina was the first Top-10 team they played all year, and they lost.
THE WILDCATS UNDER CALIPARI
Before we get to the history of the NCAA tournament for Kentucky under Calipari I wanted to address the seeding issue. If you ask any Kentucky fan what to expect for UK’s draw in the tournament you will get one response; ‘Region of Doom.’ Kentucky fans have become used to looking at the region and just shaking your head.
People outside of Big Blue Nation will say it is just Kentucky fans whining cause they did not get their way. To those people, I refer Michael DeCourcy’s article “Kentucky gets slapped with the bracket once again“. Mike is a non-biased national sports writer, not a blue goggles wearing card-carrying member of BBN like most of us.
I mean, really, when’s the last time you looked at where the Wildcats were placed in the field and said, “Cakewalk!” OK, maybe you’d never say “cakewalk” under any circumstance. It’s a pretty lame expression. If you’re a Kentucky fan, though, you don’t even need a preferable synonym handy. It never comes up.
We have seen this before, many times over:
2016: Kentucky wins the SEC Tournament over Texas A&M. The two finish with identical records at 26-8. UK finished with a higher RPI rank, played a stronger schedule, had more top-100 victories. But A&M got a No. 3 seed and UK a No. 4 in a region that included Big Ten champion Indiana as the No. 5 and North Carolina, the tournament’s second-ranked team overall.
2014: Kentucky reaches the SEC Tournament final and is the No. 16 ranked team in the RPI, with 14 top-100 wins and the second-toughest schedule in Division I. The Wildcats were placed in an 8/9 game, with undefeated Wichita State as the No. 1 seed. That loaded region included the second-strongest No. 2 seed (Michigan), the strongest No. 3 (Duke) and the strongest No. 4 (Louisville). Kentucky squeezed through the region and reached the NCAA title game.
2011: UK wins the SEC Tournament to finish with a 25-8 record and the No. 13 ranking in the RPI. The oddity of this bracket-stacking is that the No. 1 overall seed that year, Ohio State, got stuck with the Wildcats as the No. 4 and North Carolina (ACC regular-season champs, tournament finalists and 26-7 overall) as the No. 2 — and the committee chair was Ohio State AD Gene Smith. The Wildcats made the Buckeyes pay in the Sweet 16.
Now that we have that established, let us look at how the NCAA Tournament has broken for UK under Calipari.
As you peruse the information, I would like to point out that the 2013 Cardinals National Title* (*=TBD) saw a +19 seed benefit (seeds above toughest path possible). In SEVEN NCAA Tournaments, Kentucky has had a TOTAL of +19 seed benefit. That is so absurd it is laughable.
The biggest ‘upset’ that opened up for UK was when Cornell (12-seed) defeated #5 seed Temple, then #4 seed Wisconsin in the 2010 NCAA Tournament.
The improbable Final 4 of the 2014 team was four wins against the toughest four teams they could face.
The 2011 team that nearly lost to #13 seed Hawaii made a run to the Final 4 against the toughest slate possible. There were ZERO upsets to benefit them on the way.
This is not a piece designed to make you feel sorry for Kentucky or make excuses for a lack of multiple championships. What it does show, however, is that there is a lot of luck in winning a NCAA title. It also proves that John Calipari’s performance at UK in the NCAA is even better than you think.
Calipari has taken a tough seed and having to play the highest seeds possible and has still come away with a Ring, Four final fours, and SIX elite eights in just seven tournaments.
Can you imagine what the rafters in Rupp Arena may look like over the next seven tournaments if the ‘Cats get a few breaks?