SportsPulse: We have our first real bracket buster of the tournament: UC Irvine. USA TODAY’s Scott Gleeson explains how they did it and if they’re a threat to make a legit cinderella run.
JACKSONVILLE – Big bad Kentucky, the No. 2 seed, the blueblood program with 17 Final Fours and eight national championships, high school All-Americans and a large and proud fanbase, takes on tiny Wofford College, with its five NCAA appearances, low-profile recruits and one NCAA tournament victory.
Sometimes, Kentucky has played in five games in one tournament.
Two of the Terriers’ best players – three-point record-holder Fletcher Magee and forward Cameron Jackson – didn’t even know where Wofford was when the school began recruiting them. FYI: It’s in Spartanburg, South Carolina, with an undergraduate enrollment of 1,672.
It looks like a David vs. Goliath matchup. But don’t try to sell Wildcats coach John Calipari on that narrative.
“I know how good Wofford is,” he said. “I know. I’ve watched them, and I know their league (Southern Conference) – their top four teams in that league, I hate to tell you, all four should have been in the NCAA tournament when you think about who was in their league.
“But Coach Young, the job he’s done with this team, he’s been there 17 years, and to put this together and he’s a seven seed. And to come from outside the Power Five and be a seven seed, that’s a big deal. It’s a big, big deal.”
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Don’t try to sell Young on that mid-major vs. big school either.
“I hate it,” he said. “What’s UK have, 35,000 undergraduate students? We’ve got 1,600. So? We’ve got really good players. Kentucky has got really good players. Let’s go play. I tire of the mid-major and the little guy and all this stuff.”
This second-round Midwest region matchup on Saturday (approximately 2:40 p.m. ET, CBS) has the ingredients for an upset. Kentucky is short-handed, and it’s likely sophomore forward P.J. Washington, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, will miss the game with a sprained right foot, leaving the Wildcats with a slim eight-man rotation.
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“Any time you’re trying to play eight guys it’s really dangerous,” Calipari said. “Anything that happens, you’re down to seven. Another thing happens, you’re down to six. What if the six are not the right six? So, it’s really dangerous what we’re doing, and it could come back to bite us.”
Calipari is either sandbagging or bracing for a fall.
“I know how hard this game will be, especially with P.J. out,” he said. “Come on now, this team is legitimate in every form and fashion, including defense, including toughness, including veteran play. (Thursday) we started four freshmen, so.”
Wofford is legit. The Terriers are 13th in the NET rankings, won a school-record 30 games, have won 21 consecutive games. Their seventh seed is the best for a Southern Conference team since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
They have quality players. Magee became the Division I all-time leader in three-pointers with 509 after a 7-for-12, 24-point performance against Seton Hall. Magee, who has NBA potential, can match Steph Curry’s single-season three-pointer record (162) with four threes against Kentucky.
Nathan Hoover is another quality shooting guard who gets free with so much attention paid to Magee. Point guard Storm Murphy can handle pressure and make shots, and Jackson is a versatile low-post option.
“A lot of people like to talk about all the threes that we shoot and stuff, but if it wasn’t for (our big men) drawing in the defense, a lot of times we wouldn’t be open for those threes,” Magee said. “Playing inside out can definitely open it up. We’re pretty balanced because we can shoot the ball really well, but we can also pound it inside with our bigs and have them go to work.”
Said Young: “I can’t imagine a team more confident, and that’s earned. We haven’t lost since December 19th, and of the four losses, they’re all playing in the NCAA tournament this weekend.”
Indeed, Wofford schedules tough opponents: North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Kansas and Mississippi State this season and an equally impressive schedule last season that included a victory against the Tar Heels.
“We may get our ears pinned back tomorrow, but it will not be because my team is intimidated,” Young said. “We went to Phog Allen Fieldhouse. We had North Carolina at home, Oklahoma, very, very good. You know, there is a method to the madness. Our non-league schedule is always really hard. We do that for a number of reasons.”
Chief among those reasons: for a chance to compete with and possibly beat a powerhouse such as Kentucky in the NCAA tournament.