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DOYLE: Friday will be our NCAA title game

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By Steve Doyle

Here in ACC country, the sun is fading behind the oncoming threat of snow showers. There are tears and fear, loathing in the gloaming. Tobacco Road has rolled up its reputation and burned its hopes in the NCAA Tournament, leaving this as what ACC fans say to a Kentuckian these days:

Louisville will be in the ACC next year.

Yes, the Cardinals will, and perhaps the ACC would like to claim them right now, but not so fast, my friend.

The NCAA title for all intents and purposes will be decided Friday night in Indianapolis as a penance in one of the greatest sins of NCAA pairings since the seeding era of 64 teams was introduced.

Kentucky is playing Louisville. Will we consider there to be another game after that?

This meeting should not happen before at least the national semifinal (as it did two years ago) or better yet the final, which should have happened in 1975. At least the great reunion Dream Game in 1983 was for a regional title.

But none of that happens this year. These two will meet for survival in the round of 16. Consider that: The two last two NCAA title winners will play for a berth into the Final Eight.

That the NCAA placed both its marquee drawing cards – check the TV ratings, not my hype – before the Final Four is not simply repugnant but downright remedial.

The top two TV audiences for college basketball are measured routinely in Louisville and Greensboro, and the folks around my new address probably won’t be tuning in as frequently during these next two weeks.

On the other hand, Friday night likely will have about two out of three homes in Louisville at least watching some of the time.

Then one team will go home, and the NCAA will lose half the audience from its most active market

Those decision-makers live in Indianapolis and think in New York. Clue is a board game they played as a child, not something they practice in their chosen profession (or pursuit, their professionalism still being up for debate). Those negated noses can’t save those red faces.

The inherent stupidity of the NCAA was apparent on the day the pairings were announced, because not only did the selection committee place Kentucky and Louisville on an early collision course, but it also mixed in its best Cinderella, too, undefeated Wichita State.

I will tell you that I root for the Cats and Cards first and foremost, but if they had been banished, my aging buttocks would’ve found purchase quickly on the downhill wagon for those Shockers.

They earned my undying respect on a night last April in Atlanta, when I sat among thousands and watched them push the best team – and eventual champion – our Cardinals, to the verge of defeat. Cleanthony Early not only has a great name but also great game. These guys are embraceable and undefeated and the poster team for underdogs everywhere.

But, no, these Shockers would have to play Kentucky, the sport’s dominant program, and then Louisville, its defending champion and the last team to defeat them, to get a fair shot at making a return trip to the Final Four.

You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to suggest that the big-conference boys in the NCAA knew exactly what they were doing and penalized Wichita for not being that other team from Kansas.

But no team from Kansas still is playing in the best sports event of any year. Two teams from Kentucky are, albeit for only one more night.

Duke is gone. North Carolina is gone. So are Kansas and Syracuse and NC State and Georgetown and Memphis and a lot of other marquee names. Florida, Arizona and Virginia remain, but the other team seeded No. 1 lost a brilliant game against oncoming Kentucky.

Back in December, when the Cats handled the Cards, I thought the game would go the other way, that experience would trump talent and moxie would better mood. That game was at Rupp Arena, and I was wrong.

I have watched both teams play dozens of games since then, and to pick a winner on Friday would be nothing less than the most hazardous of guesses. A hot hand here, foul trouble there and shakiness anywhere will determine the outcome.

One team will win, the other will lose. But, really, all Kentuckians will win because the nation again will see and understand that the best the sport has to offer resides in an 80-mile stretch of Interstate 64.

No latter what happens, Kentuckians will have a team left in the tournament, a team likely to have a very good chance at a title. The winningest state will show its winning colors.

The only losers will be those folks with NCAA on their pockets.

 

Steve Doyle, a native of Shelby County and a former editor of The Sentinel-News, lives in Greensboro, N.C.