When Villanova lost to Wisconsin Saturday night, my first thought was: Once again, the furniture has been moved to clear a path right to the championship game for Duke.
At tourney time, Kentucky fans keep Duke in one corner of their peripheral vision, Louisville in the other.
And so it was all the more delicious that Duke was sent home by a representative of the “weak SEC.” Three of the Sweet 16 are from the SEC. The ACC, which sent nine teams into the tournament — with six of them seeded fifth or higher — now has only one survivor: regular season champion North Carolina.
In fact, it was not a kind weekend for second-seeds from the ACC.
And while Michigan gained some revenge against Louisville for the 2013 national championship, it was not necessarily a good weekend for settling past disputes. I’m talking, of course, about the hype regarding Wichita State and Kentucky. Three years ago, almost to the day, Kentucky abruptly ended Wichita State’s undefeated run with an amazing upset.
Look, who knows better than Big Blue Nation how it stings to see an undefeated season get away? Kentucky fans will have blood in their eyes if the gods somehow agree to pair UK and Wisconsin in the championship.
But do you think Malik Monk or Bam Adebayo see Wisconsin any differently than they do the other 15 teams in front of them? Do you think De’Aaron Fox fixates on the devastating shot-clock no-call that kept Willie, Towns, Booker, Ulis and the twins from their destiny? Do you think Wenyan Gabriel even knows about Kentucky’s two straight shot-clock violations in the closing minutes? Do you think Isaiah Briscoe stays up nights thinking how things might have been different if Alex Poythress hadn’t gotten hurt?
However, UCLA is another story. The young Cats will all say it’s just the next game they have to win when they face UCLA in the Sweet 16 (Friday, 9:39 p.m. tipoff, CBS). But they know. They remember December’s matchup, which UCLA won 97-92, with Isaac Hamilton scoring 19 points and three three-pointers. They remember TJ Leaf’s 13 rebounds, and the way he shredded Kentucky’s inside defense. They remember Thomas Welsh getting 14 points and eight rebounds.
Perhaps most of all, they remember Lonzo Ball hitting a three-point shot and then shushing the Rupp Arena crowd. Of course they remember, it has become the most overly repeated photograph of this college basketball season.
The loss snapped Kentucky’s 42-game winning streak at Rupp. These young Cats may not remember the 42 home-game wins that preceded the loss, but they surely remember the loss.
So they might well feel the need to get back. One hopes they don’t shoot their mouths off, the way a few Wichita State players did, saying things that might make them look foolish after the fact. Even Shocker head coach Greg Marshall got in on the party, saying something about Bam “needing to be in shape” against his tandem of mastodons. Bam seemed to be in pretty good shape, never more so than when he capped a 31-minute, 10-rebound afternoon by blocking Wichita State’s final prayer.
Marshall conducted himself with class after the 2014 loss, but it evidently was still festering inside. (And, from post-game reports, his wife was festering, too.)
Kentucky’s kids just don’t seem the pop-off types. Briscoe, who’s combative in a New Jersey way (I lived there for 20 years, I know of what I speak), might be lured into an intemperate remark by the clamoring media. But then again, Briscoe seems too smart to offer anything that might be damaging.
I think the tension, pressure and thrill of getting this far in the tournament ought to be enough to keep UK focused. They’re a different team than the one in early December. They’re not scoring 92 points every night, but they’re rarely giving up more than 70 points, either.
Monk has not been shooting 10-of-19 from the floor, four-of-eight from three, like he did that night against UCLA. But the Wildcats have been finding other ways to win, and they have a week to rest and prepare.
They don’t want their season to end, and there are a lot of things to give Kentucky hope. But there are probably a lot of things to give UCLA hope, as well.
In fact, there were probably a lot of things to give Villanova hope. And Duke. And Louisville. And Virginia. And Florida State.
This is the NCAA Tournament. You have five minutes to enjoy your last win. And then it’s on to the next game, hoping you’re not one of half of all the teams left that will not get to enjoy another win.