This NCAA Tournament feels like one of those BOGO specials at the supermarket.
Buy into one intriguing storyline, get one at no extra charge.
What a deal!
The tournament got off to a maddening start Thursday with five one-point games — an NCAA record for a single day — and slipper fittings for a pair of No. 14 seeds, Georgia State and UAB. Never has it looked more wide open — until reality returned shortly after the clock struck midnight.
Top-ranked Kentucky resumed its inevitable quest for perfection with another blowout win, a narrative just as compelling as all those stunning upsets.
And that’s a good thing.
In Kentucky vs. the Field, there’s no reason to pick one over the other.
Just sit back and enjoy the ride, all these results we never saw coming leading up to the one we’ve expected all along: Kentucky cutting down the nets after the final game on April 6, claiming its rightful place as one of the greatest teams in NCAA history.
Five more wins — and there’s no reason to think the Wildcats (35-0) won’t get them — and men’s college basketball will have its first unblemished champion since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers.
John Calipari deserves a tip of the hat for making it possible.
Say what you want about Coach Cal running a one-and-done NBA farm club in Lexington (no argument there), he assembled an immensely talented group that manages to be a team in every sense of the word. A roster-full of superstars, all willing to do what’s best for the collective effort.
That’s quite a coaching job.
“If your son was a top five player and I played him 22 minutes a game and he got nine shots, how would you feel? You’d be all right?” Calipari asked. “That’s happening. These young people are allowing this to happen, and they’re finding out they all can eat.”
Kentucky’s top scorer, Aaron Harrison, averages just 11.1 points a game. Only two other players are in double figures for the season. But the Wildcats are the best defensive team in America, limiting opponent to just 54 points a game and 35 percent shooting, and they wear everyone down by divvying up playing time among what amounts to nine starters.
Karl-Anthony Towns scored 21 points in Kentucky’s workmanlike 79-56 win over 16th-seeded Hampton late Thursday, but it very well could be Harrison or his twin brother, Andrew, who sets the pace when the Wildcats face Cincinnati on Saturday. Or Willie Cauley-Stein. Or Devin Booker. Or Trey Lyles. All have led the Wildcats in scoring over the last 10 games.
“It’s not that hard to stay in the moment with this team,” said Marcus Lee, another member of the rotation. “We enjoy each other very much in everything we do.”
As for the rest of the NCAA field, no one is enjoying the moment more than Ron and R.J. Hunter, the father-coach and son-star player at Georgia State. They’ll be part of every March Madness montage going forward after the son hoisted an outrageous shot from midway between the 3-point arc and half-court line to beat third-seeded Baylor 57-56, sending his father — right in the camera shot — tumbling off the rolling chair he was using after tearing his Achilles tendon in the Sun Belt Conference tournament.
The elder Hunter, who cracked the cast he was wearing, was feeling no pain afterward. He even trash-talked President Obama during the locker room celebration, telling the most powerful man in the world — and someone who picked Baylor in his tournament bracket — that “I hope you make better decisions in that presidency than you did about Georgia State.”
As the Panthers prepared to face sixth-seeded Xavier on Saturday, they were still relishing a rare moment in the sun for a school that’s barely noticed in its own state.
Asked how many times he had seen his winning shot, R.J. replied, “I’m going to be honest, I YouTubed it like 50 on my own, and just watching TV, around 50 more, so I’d say roughly around 100 times.”
Let’s also give a shoutout to UAB, a school that certainly deserved some good athletic news after its president shut down the football program a few months ago, sparking contentious campus protests in Birmingham. The Blazers were only 16-15 during the regular season but won the Conference USA Tournament — then knocked off third-seeded Iowa State 60-59, marking the first time since 1995 that two 14th-seeded teams won an NCAA game.
“I had a couple friends on the (football) team, and it was devastating for them,” said Robert Brown, UAB’s junior guard. “We’re just really trying to focus on keeping the city positive and giving them something to cheer for.”
Next up, UAB faces 11th-seeded UCLA, which advanced with its own one-point upset of SMU.
Forget bracket busters. These were bracket destroyers.
Of course, we know which team will be on that final line, the one with “champions” under it.
No complaints here.
It’s going to be a lot of fun getting there.
Paul Newberry in a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963
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