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Win or lose, the Cats and Cards can call this season a success

by Mark Coomes

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UK vs. U of L at Rupp Arena in December
(Photo by Jeff Reinking/Courtesy UofL Athletics)

Once the NCAA tournament field is set, numerology replaces bracketology as college basketball’s favorite pseudoscience.

Fans spend hours poring over power rankings, point spreads and algorithmic outputs from stats wonks who may (Ken Pomeroy) or may not (Nate Silver) know a pick-and-roll from a picket fence.

The digits identify more winners than losers, but they are far from foolproof. No metric in the world predicted that Mercer would conquer Duke or that Dayton would sweep Ohio State and Syracuse.

This is relevant because fans and sportswriters have spent the past four days turning actuarial tables upside down and inside out, seeking to foretell the outcome of Friday night’s blood feud between the universities of Kentucky and Louisville.

But there is no numerical grail.

There is no Enigma machine capable of deciphering all the data and distilling an infallible prediction.

We just have to wait and see.

Only one certainty exists and it is this: Win or lose, both teams can call 2013-14 a successful season.

Seriously.

For Friday’s loser, the season will undoubtedly end in disappointment, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a success. Disappointment is tied to expectations, and expectations around here can be unreasonably high.

To wit, many will be disappointed if Friday’s winner doesn’t win again on Sunday and advance to the Final Four, because that’s the only safe harbor from regrets and recriminations.

But if the outsized aspirations are pushed aside for a moment, you can see how much both teams have achieved already.

kentucky-vs-louisvilleBoth have overcome serious obstacles to reach the Round of 16, a vastly underrated accomplishment in these parts. Think about it. More than 350 schools play Division I basketball; less than 5 percent are still contesting the main event.

Indiana didn’t even make the tournament. Duke, Kansas and North Carolina were ousted last weekend, along with six other teams seeded higher than U of L and 16 seeded higher than UK.

We’re playing big boy basketball now. Gilded reputations and fancy conference ties mean squat. The teams still standing played their way into the top 16. They weren’t voted there. They weren’t algorithmically anointed. They passed the only test that matters – on the court, twice in three days.

That’s no mean feat.

Granted, UK and U of L don’t hang banners for making the Sweet 16, but so what? They don’t retire the jersey of every all-conference player who comes down the pike either. It doesn’t mean those guys weren’t any good.

Let’s be honest: Despite their lofty perches in the preseason polls, there were times this season when both teams looked like longshots to survive the first weekend of March Madness. The Sweet 16 was a destination neither squad was entitled to take for granted.

Louisville didn’t beat a ranked team until Feb. 22. On March 1, after blowing another late lead at Memphis, the Cardinals owned a 3-5 record against teams that ultimately made the NCAA field.

Kentucky spent three months throwing more leaners than ringers, then spent February laying eggs.

Close losses to Michigan State, North Carolina and Baylor, combined with a win over U of L, convinced fans that the Wildcats were ready to turn the corner – and they did, straight into a brick wall. UK closed the regular season with four losses in its last seven games and vanished from both polls.

We know now that both teams were overrated in October.

Even if Kentucky makes good on its exorbitant potential this month, it was silly to rank such a young team No. 1. No matter how talented, freshmen are still freshmen. And UK’s freshmen clearly were going to walk the high wire without a net.

Unlike the rookie-laden teams that took John Calipari deep into March of his first three seasons, this one had no upperclassmen to lean on. None. The only elder statesmen with the skills to help were a pair of sophomores, Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein, who mostly floundered the previous year on a team that crashed and burned in the NIT.

As for Louisville, a close, clear-eyed look – the kind nobody took before the season – would have revealed a ticking time bomb of latent mediocrity.

The Cards had lost two hugely important players, their director and rim protector, Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng. The twin darlings of last March, Luke Hancock and Kevin Ware, were hobbling on bad wheels. Chane Behanan was living on borrowed time.

Of those five players, all key cogs on the championship team, only Hancock was still in uniform on New Year’s Day. The remaining Cardinals were, to borrow the words of John Updike, a jangling medley of incompetent youth and aging competence.

It took three months for Rick Pitino to unearth a viable center (senior Stephan Van Treese) and a decent low-post scorer (sophomore Montrezl Harrell). Russ Smith stood tall with another All-America season, but the backcourt is positively Lilliputian. Wayne Blackshear’s blue-chip credentials were revealed as more fiction than fact. A starter on the title team, he was benched for masquerading all winter as the Invisible Man.

Calipari and Pitino earned their millions this season. These flawed teams were infinitely harder to coach than those that claimed the last two NCAA crowns.

Be grateful that both teams are still playing. Commend the coaches for never giving up. Congratulate the players for finding a second wind and a fifth gear.

It couldn’t have been easy.

There are 339 teams that would kill to trade places with U of L and UK. Before they commence to killing each other on Friday night, take a moment to appreciate the effort it took to stay alive this long and play this well.

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