Monday, March 17, 2003

Kentucky No. 1 in Midwest

Wildcats should move to top of polls today

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

NEW ORLEANS - As Kentucky's players left the Louisiana Superdome court Sunday, some fans held signs saying, "Save my seat for April 7." That's the date of the NCAA championship game, to be played on the same court. UK earned the No. 1 seeding for the NCAA Tournament that should ease its return path, but its road doesn't lack potholes.

Kentucky's Keith Bogans (10) and Marquis Estill (50) hold the 2003 SEC Championship trophy after Kentucky defeated Mississippi State, 64-57, in the championship of the SEC Conference tournament in the Superdome, Sunday.
(AP photo)
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The Wildcats (29-3), winners of 23 straight after their 64-57 beating of Mississippi State in the Southeastern Conference title game here Sunday, will open Midwest Regional play at 12:30 ET Friday against Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (20-13) at Gaylord Entertainment Center in Nashville, Tenn.

Though several analysts are calling the Midwest the weakest region, UK might have to beat Big East champion Pittsburgh (26-4) to reach the Final Four.

Then, surprisingly, an expected matchup against Arizona would occur in the national semifinals. That went against conventional wisdom that UK and Arizona - considered the nation's two best teams - should not meet until the title game.

"To put the two goliaths of college basketball on the same side of the draw, that bothers me," analyst Dick Vitale said on ESPN.

According to Jim Livengood, chairman of the NCAA basketball committee, UK was placed in the Midwest because Lexington is closer to the Midwest Regional in Minneapolis than to the South Regional in San Antonio. The Midwest winner faces the winner of the West, in which Arizona is the top seed.

"We obviously don't try to look ahead (to Final Four matchups); the committee can't predict who will win," Livengood said on CBS. "We're just trying to make sure we do the best job for fans and their teams."

CBS' Jim Nantz wondered aloud why UK couldn't have been placed in the East Region, with its regional in Albany, N.Y.

"I looked it up," Nantz said on the air. "If (UK) were in Albany, that's 810 miles (from Lexington); it's 790 to Minneapolis. Those are the longest 20 miles as far as affecting the seedings ..."

UK coach Tubby Smith was diplomatic, saying: "I'm very happy that we secured a No. 1 seed in the Midwest. ... We have a strong fan base in Nashville."

For now, UK isn't looking beyond Friday. The Wildcats have been able to remain focused since December and haven't been caught looking ahead.

"This is the postseason," UK senior guard Keith Bogans said. "Everyone will test you. We don't expect to blow anyone out."

In 16th-seeded IUPUI, the Wildcats will face a team that won eight of its last nine games and claimed the Mid-Continent Conference's automatic berth.

Then UK would be in line to face either No. 8 seed Oregon or No. 9 seed Utah. The seedings could be misleading; Utah (24-7) is No. 16 in the RPI and Oregon (23-9) No. 50. But the Ducks rebounded after going 5-5 down the stretch of the regular season to win the Pacific 10 Tournament.

Of course, UK and Utah have some history. The Wildcats are 5-0 against the Utes the past 11 seasons - four of those games coming in the NCAA tourney, including the 1998 national final.

UK should get a test in the regional final against either second seed Pitt or third seed Marquette. Pitt probably will finish No. 3 today in the final polls.

UK is expected today to secure the nation's No. 1 ranking for the first time since 1996.

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