I awoke Sunday morning with a very familiar feeling. I had “sprung forward”, losing more sleep than I’d have liked because I just couldn’t stop watching late night basketball. I checked my weekly calendar, noting that my golf club’s organizational meeting was this week, which was yet another sign that in spite of frigid temperatures, spring was indeed just around the corner. And, of course, it was Championship Sunday, and our Cats were once again in the tournament final. I felt all the feelings and was filled with a warm glow.
Then just as quickly, those warm fuzzy feelings were joined by that undeniable tightening of the stomach along with breathing that was slightly more shallow. It was the “madness” portion of March Madness. You know what I’m talking about: it’s the realization that this is it. This is the only part of the season that really matters (if you don’t believe me, ask Cameron Mills about the importance of pre-March basketball). Even with a victory in the SEC title game, you know you’ll only get to celebrate for a few hours because, after that, it’s all business.
So I headed to church, feeling all the feels, and after the service went to my brother’s house for lunch and to watch the game. I had occasional distractions, most notably from my niece dog Lizzie, but I did get to focus enough on the game to be very happy with the Cats’ effort and execution. As is frequently the case, Kentucky won and cut down nets and the Big Blue Nation celebrated for a few hours. Then it was time. Time to find out our path in our latest pursuit of banner #9.
Here is where the “madness” starts to set in with a lot of fans. Kentucky gets placed in the most difficult bracket, which happens just about every year. The first game is to be played against an instate school (Northern Ky. University), which again is not unexpected. Then you see other potential opponents: Wichita State, UCLA, and UNC. A month ago, I said the NCAA would either put us in a bracket with Kansas and Louisville or else they’d stick us with UCLA and UNC. Again, nothing new to see here. Other lower-ranked 2 seeds appear to have an easier path to the Final Four. And?
Folks, it is what it is. The NCAA has a long pattern of giving Kentucky “special” treatment in the tournament. We shouldn’t be surprised and we certainly shouldn’t let this steal our joy from the best time of the year. We can’t let March Madness make us mad.
NKU, I’m sorry I don’t get to cheer for you in your first NCAA Tournament. But I have to believe my Cats will take care of business and move on to the round of 32. If Wichita State is next, then bring them on. This isn’t 2014, they are not undefeated and the cast of characters on both teams has changed so drastically since the last meeting there’s nothing to suggest this game will even remotely resemble the epic battle in 2014.
What if we face UCLA, you ask? Shouldn’t we be scared? They came into Rupp and beat us! While it’s true they defeated UK back in December, it’s worth noting that was before the boys in blue had really embraced defense and learned the importance of playing with energy for a full 40 minutes. We’ve slowly been trending upward while the Bruins seem to have stagnated a bit. Nope, not scared. Yes, I respect them but I do not fear them.
So if the seeds hold and we play North Carolina again? There is no denying that UNC has an excellent team this year and a game with them would be almost certainly a tough battle. But the Cats do have the knowledge of knowing they beat the Tarheels once, so they can do it again. And this time we have more than just Malik Monk that can be counted on to make key contributions.
Is this an easy path to the Final Four? Absolutely not but it’s certainly one that can be successfully navigated. Do other team have an easier path? Perhaps but they still have to play the games. Kansas and Duke are no strangers to early exits from the Big Dance and remind us anyone can lose on any given day.
Author’s Note: I am in no way assuming we have all our games in the bag. I am not “looking past” any opponent (though even if I were, it matters not as I won’t be suiting up to play). I am merely trying to calm the anxieties many of you are feeling.
How do you avoid being overcome by the madness of March? Well, what works for me is to get into my happy place and focus on all the positives. I think about Malik Monk on one of his patented hot shooting streaks. I conjure up images of De’Aaron Fox flying down the court at warp speed leaving opponents in the dust. I focus on the emergence of Fox’s ability to make occasional 3-point baskets.
I imagine Bam Adebayo’s smile after he has made a monstrous jam. I recall the tenacity and heart of Isaiah Briscoe. I watch Derek Willis blossom more each game as he embraces being a fierce rebounder and shot blocker to round out his game of being a 3-point threat. And I see Dominique Hawkins and his million-watt smile. I see a Kentucky native who has had a career derailed at times because of injury but who is now taking full advantage of every opportunity to do whatever this team needs in order to be successful.
I see a team that has had some ups and downs but has also grown and developed into an outstanding unit. I see a group of kids who have learned to play as a cohesive unit while still having fun. I see a bunch of extremely talented players that when playing their best, can beat any team in the country. I see a bunch of Wildcats that are primed and ready to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
Have fun filling out your brackets. Discuss, debate and completely over-analyze every match-up between every team. Modify your work schedule to either attend games or to stay home and totally overdose on 48 games in 4 days. Embrace March Madness.
Just don’t get mad.
Oh, and if you feel the madness creeping up, then take a look at this picture which is guaranteed to make anyone smile:
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