NCAA hoops: With Kansas ousted, Kentucky looms as favorite in Tournament
By Mark Story
NEW ORLEANS — Finally, genuine NCAA Tournament electricity came to the Crescent City.
Oh, not in the actual New Orleans Arena.
As word spread that No. 1 overall seed Kansas was in deep doo-doo Saturday against Northern Iowa, an unusual crowd gathered around a TV near the media room buried deep inside the bowels of the facility.
As the Jayhawks struggled to survive, female University of Kentucky cheerleaders kneeled, expectantly, in front of the television. Members of the UK pep band celebrated with every Kansas misfortune.
As the last tenth of a second ticked off on the TV and mighty Kansas fell, the UK kids let out a mighty roar.
It’s a whole new tournament now.
On the day when the ground shook beneath the 2010 Big Dance, the Kentucky basketball team looked every bit like what it now is:
The favorite to claim the national championship.
With Darius Miller (20 points, nine rebounds) turning in the game of his Kentucky career and DeMarcus Cousins both keeping his cool and playing some dominating basketball (19 points, eight boards), UK blitzed Wake Forest 90-60 Saturday night.
Apparently, among the few people in the New Orleans Arena at the time UK-Wake tipped off who didn’t know that Kansas had been ousted were the Kentucky players.
“We weren’t allowed to know what the results of that game were,” Cousins said. “We were told to focus on our own game.”
Said Kentucky Coach John Calipari: “I made them turn the TV off to think about our game. Don’t worry about that game. When they went out (for warm-ups), I was saying ’Wow.”’
That’s pretty much what everyone was saying about UK after the Cats turned in two gems in NOLA.
In the opening-round victory over East Tennessee State, it was Eric Bledsoe (29 points, 8-for-9 three-point shooting) and Patrick Patterson (22 points, 9-for-10 field goals) who wore the star mantles.
Against Wake, Miller set the tone. The former Mason County star had a dazzling first half. Attacking the basket with abandon (finally) and scoring on an array of clever runners, Miller had 16 points on 6-for-7 shooting by halftime.
“I just tried to play aggressive like Coach has been telling me,” Miller said. “A lot of times, they help off of me and a few of the other wings and that provides us to get to the lane.”
The crucial segment of the game came early. The score was tied at 19 when Wake star Al-Farouq Aminu picked up his third foul and went to the bench with 11:39 left in the first half.
UK responded exactly how a championship-caliber team should: It sensed a wounded prey and went for the kill.
The Cats outscored Wake 25-9 the rest of the first half, holding the Demon Deacons to four field goals (on 20 tries) in the stretch.
Remember the UK team that spent much of the season squandering big leads? That team was nowhere on display in New Orleans.
A 44-28 Kentucky halftime lead was 56-32 by the first TV timeout of half two thanks to a 12-4 Kentucky run.
The Cats seemed to have answers for every challenge.
Wake Forest big man Chas McFarland — dubbed the most annoying player in major-college basketball — did all he could to get into Cousins’ head.
During the pre-game introductions, McFarland let Cousins walk all the way to the center-jump circle to shake hands with him, then turned his back on the UK big man and walked away without offering his hand.
“An amateur move on his part,” Cousins said later.
With 9:39 left in the game, McFarland delivered a hard foul that sent Big Cuz sprawling to the floor.
Rather than retaliate, Big Cuz popped up smiling, waving his arms to Kentucky fans in the crowd of 11,966 to get them cheering.
“He’s a dirty player,” Cousins said afterward of McFarland. “The whole world knows it.”
Having come through New Orleans with aplomb, the next step for Kentucky won’t be easy.
Whether UK gets Wisconsin or Cornell in the round of 16, it will get a well-drilled team capable of slowing UK’s track meet with a precision ball-control attack.
In other words, a team trying to be the Northern Iowa to Kentucky’s Kansas.
There’s still hard basketball ahead for UK.
With the Jayhawks now rocked and chalked, Kentucky will be playing with the favorite’s pressure now, right?
“Nope,” said Cousins, with a laugh.
Said Calipari: “I don’t know if we are the overwhelming favorite. Everybody was picking us to lose today. They were also saying we’d be the first No. 1 out. So how do they change those talking heads overnight?”
Pretty easy. Kansas is gone. And Kentucky rolled through New Orleans looking every bit like a championship-worthy team.
There are no certainties. Still, in about two weeks, those UK cheerleaders and pep band kids may have a whole lot more to celebrate.