Since that March 30 Texas evening, the Cats' have been bounced in the Sweet 16 (73-66, by Michigan State), in the second round (52-50, by Syracuse), in another Sweet 16 (in a 80-76 shocker at the hands of USC), in one more third-round game (78-68, courtesy the 2002 national champion, Maryland), in an Elite Eight contest (Marquette doing the trick two years ago in Minneapolis, 83-69) and in a second-round stunner last season (76-76, at the hands of Alabama-Birmingham).
Those were frustrations galore, for the Kentucky players and coaches – and a fan or two, no doubt.
Is there reason to believe that this group of Wildcats is capable of getting over Final Four hump for the first time since Tubby Smith's first season as the program's head man?
Absolutely – with a caveat, aka "offense".
Experience, quality guard play and a commitment to playing 40 minutes of no-nonsense defense are staples, almost without fail, for teams to survive into the third and final week of the tournament.
And this Smith club has each of those, with a senior power forward (Chuck Hayes) as one of three tournament veterans (joining juniors Kelenna Azubuike and Patrick Sparks) in the starting lineup, an enormously talented freshmen point guard in Rajon Rondo joining Sparks in the backcourt and a defense that allows opponents just 61.9 points per game and .404 shooting from the field.
OK … now for the caveat:
Barring a near collapse, getting by Eastern Kentucky shouldn't be a major obstacle, although the Colonels should be as amped as any team in the tournament playing Thursday or Friday.
But can they generate enough offense to get by Iowa (a very possible "upset" winner over Cincinnati in the other first-round Austin Region game played in Indianapolis Thursday) Saturday?
If so, a trip to Texas would likely present Utah, and the best center in college hoops (Andrew Bogut), or Big 12 regular season-co champion Oklahoma, if the Sooners are able to withstand a possible upset try by the Utes in Tucson this week.
If we really want to get ahead of ourselves – something Smith would never allow his players or staff to do, by the way – No. 1 seed Duke or Syracuse almost certainly would be the last barrier to trip to St. Louis.
Again, offense – be it generated via half-court execution or in transition in fast-break opportunities created off of missed shots or turnovers by opponents – is going to be the key.
Defense, leadership and the defensive aspects are locks.
This is a team that has scored more than 80 points only eight times this season – none over the past six games and only twice (vs. LSU and Mississippi State) against opponents also in the NCAA tournament field.
Sparks and Azubuike have bailed out the team's offense with streaky jump shooting at times this season. But the .338 team 3-point percentage is a loud reminder as to why half-court efficiency in getting the ball to cutters or into post players Hayes and freshman center Randolph Morris, and creating easy scoring opportunities via pressure defense will have to be key components of the Wildcats' Final Four formula.