LEXINGTON— The Kentucky basketball team was on a bus riding back from Bluegrass Airport here on Sunday when it found out the Wildcats were just a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
“I’m a little but surprised to be honest with you. But in the end, you’re in the tournament, you’re going to have to win games. A tough road for us. It was a tough road last year,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said after learning his team would open tourney play Thursday in Tampa against Princeton. “I don’t think it’s personal. But wow. This team’s really worked hard all year. I think our RPI is a seven. So a seven RPI gets your a four (seed)?”
And not just any No. 4, but the last fourth seed since the Wildcats are in the same region with overall No. 1 seed Ohio State. North Carolina is the No. 2 seed and Syracuse is the No. 3 seed in the East Region.
Kentucky could possibly have to play West Virginia, the same team that eliminated the Cats in last year’s Elite Eight, if it wins Thursday.
“I don’t think it’s personal. I know our people would say, ‘Playing West Virginia again,’” said Calipari, who noted someone called that matchup two weeks ago. “I said, ‘Come on.’ It was just a guess, but they ended up being right. But at the end of the day, let’s use it and let’s move on. I’m just happy how my team played in the (Southeastern Conference) tournament. They can seed us where they want to seed us. We’re playing well. Let’s go do it.”
Kentucky (25-8) plays Ivy League champion Princeton (25-6) in the first round of the East Regional about 3 p.m. Thursday. A win would set up a potential matchup with No. 5 seed West Virginia on Saturday at a time still to be announced.
What had most of the crowd at Calipari’s house reeling Sunday night was Florida, which Kentucky has beaten twice in the last two weeks, receiving a No. 2 seed in the Southeast Regional.
“You can obviously see they had the two and four and they obviously didn’t feel comfortable flopping us and Florida. Even though we’ve beaten them two times in the last 10 days,” Calipari said. “I don’t know what the criteria (is). Our RPI was better, our strength of schedule was about the same or better, but they did not want to flip us. I thought going in one of us was a three and one of us is a four and whoever won the game would flip into there. But obviously I’m not in that room.
“But good for Florida. Let them go win and hopefully we win. Happy five teams going from our league.”
Since the coach knows complaining about the seed won’t do any good, he said nothing special to his team about the seeding.
“You think (the selection committee) will argue for us? I don’t think they will,” he said. “You just move on. There’s nothing we can do about it. And I think the biggest part of it is by having our tournament (final) on Sunday, things are already done before the tournament game is even played in my opinion. I’m not saying change the date. I’m saying that’s a fact.”
Now the Cats have to get ready for a Princeton team that won a playoff game 63-62 Saturday with Harvard to get the Ivy league title.
“Princeton’s going to be good. They’re a team that is able to do their thing. They run a great offense,” Calipari said. “The first game will be hard, the second game will be really hard. The third game (potentially top-seeded Ohio State) will be impossible.”
But Calipari likes how his team, which has won six straight, is playing heading into the tournament.
“This team has fought like crazy. We went four days and had a great run and now we’ll see if we can keep it going,” he said. “Most of my teams have played their best basketball down the stretch and played with some emotion and passion and had fun playing. Your team has to be the one everyone looks at and says man they’re having fun playing ball.”