UK-UConn? Iowa St. says no thanks
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Early in the first half of Kentucky's game against Western Kentucky on Thursday evening, as the Wildcats tried to scrape the 16th-seeded Hilltoppers from the bottom of their sneakers, a chorus of boos arrived without warning.
From the upper reaches of the KFC Yum! Center to the lower bowl, thousands of UK fans made their displeasure known to the 14 players walking slowly to their seats three rows behind the baseline. They wore dark blue sweatsuits and a school logo despised by Kentucky followers.
Big Blue Nation has a long memory. It remembers what happened last April 2, when the Huskies defeated the Cats in the Final Four by a single point. Kentucky went home; Connecticut went on to win a national title.
But come Saturday, in the South Region round of 32, UK would exact its revenge. At least, that was the office pool plan.
One problem: Iowa State beat Kentucky to it.
Actually, ISU beat UConn 77-64, and threw a very large water balloon in the face of everyone who assumed the Huskies and Wildcats would get a rematch of their 2011 NCAA tournament meeting. Instead, Iowa State advances, and the Huskies are one-and-done.
Gone are the defending national champions. Gone are all the ribeye-juicy storylines between UConn and Kentucky. Huskies coach Jim Calhoun, whose feud with UK coach John Calipari goes back decades, would have given his tonsils to send the Wildcats to an early spring break.
But Iowa State has its own story to tell. Chapter One: Why Kentucky Had Better Not Overlook Us.
UConn did. Or at least it played like it did.
The Huskies were down by 20 with 8:45 remaining in the first half. A disgusted Calhoun, arms crossed in anger, called timeout and then stood alone, some 10 feet away, as his team waited in a semicircle. It was as if he simply couldn't believe what he was seeing.
Sitting to my right on press row were several Kentucky assistant coaches. They knew what they were seeing. It was vintage 2012 Iowa State basketball: lots of 3-pointers, lots of rebounds, lots of fearlessness.
If Kentucky, the No. 1 overall seed, needed a remedial course in what happens when you overlook an opponent, UConn provided it. Maybe the Huskies were looking ahead.
"If they did," Calhoun said, "they made a hell of a mistake. I don't think they did. For whatever reason, we get caught as being nothing more than a street sign as they went by us a thousand miles an hour in that first 10 minutes of basketball."
Those opening minutes, said second-year ISU coach Fred Hoiberg, were "the best 10 minutes" the Cyclones played all season.
Connecticut becomes only the fourth defending champion since seeding began in 1979 to lose its opening game of the tournament. Those other teams (UCLA, Indiana and Louisville) were No. 4 seeds. Iowa State is an 8-seed but played like a 4, or better.
For a regional in desperate need of a triple latte, Iowa State's win is a good thing. I don't know whether the Cyclones will upset UK, but they won't phone it in like UConn did at times during the Thursday nightcap.
"You see [the Wildcats] every night on ESPN," said sophomore forward Royce White, who leads Iowa State in scoring, rebounds and assists. "My [thoughts] are that they're a good team, they're talented, obviously. They're the No. 1 team for a reason."
What this corner of the bracket lost in marquee value with UConn's departure, it will make up in work ethic. Iowa State outworked the Huskies. Kentucky outclassed Western Kentucky. Murray State outsweated Colorado State. And Marquette out-everything'd BYU. So now it gets fun.
'The Last Great Game'
March 28, 1992. The final of the NCAA East Regional, Duke vs. Kentucky. Gene Wojciechowski's "The Last Great Game" is the definitive book on the greatest game in the history of college basketball, and the dramatic road both teams took to get there.
No. 6 seed Murray versus No. 3 seed Marquette will be like watching twin brothers go at it on their driveway court. The Racers beat Colorado State by 17, while Marquette beat BYU by 20. Both teams play defense like they'll lose their scholarships if an opponent scores a hoop. The over/under on bruise marks is 100.
Iowa State doesn't play with the same level of physicality. Then again, that's easy for me to say; I don't have to check 6-foot-8, 270-pound Royce White. Even his arm tattoos look like they could hurt someone.
Hoiberg's team is heavy on transfers (four in the starting lineup) and heart. The Cyclones shoot the 3 without thinking twice (748 total trey attempts, seventh nationally in 3s per game), and, man, do they play hard. They outrebounded UConn by 17. Kentucky will be busy.
That wasn't the case against Western Kentucky. UK fans were so starved for something, anything, to happen in the Wildcats' 81-66 win that they nearly blew a temple vein when star freshman Anthony Davis was called for a technical after a rim-hanging dunk.
By the way, Kentucky was up by 27 at the time.
UK won't beat Iowa State by 27. In fact, there's no real guarantee it will beat ISU. But if it does -- and does so convincingly -- then a lot of people who have Big Blue winning it all are going to sleep easier.
This is a team and a game UK should fear. Check that -- not fear, but take very seriously. The Cyclones might be the 8-seed, and yes, they lost 10 games this season. But they seem to be playing on house money.
Plus, nobody was asking Kentucky's players about Iowa State earlier Thursday night. Instead, the questions -- and the answers -- were about the Cats facing UConn.
"They're a very talented team," UK's Darius Miller said of the late, great Huskies.
So here is Iowa State, a legitimate challenge to Kentucky's expected march to its first national title since 1998 -- centuries, by UK standards. Scared? Doubtful. So far this season, Hoiberg's team has beaten Kansas, Baylor and Kansas State. And now UConn.
When it was done, when Connecticut had suffered the final indignity (a missed breakaway, windmill dunk attempt by Huskies swingman Jeremy Lamb at the buzzer), the remaining Kentucky fans didn't boo. Instead, I saw about a dozen of them give a standing O to Iowa State.
You know what? The Cyclones deserved it.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. His new book, "The Last Great Game," focuses on the 1992 Kentucky-Duke game. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.
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