Mar. 31, 2017
Wildcats shine in Day 1; Expected to shine in Day 2
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Even a Southern guy like me – I live in Atlanta, grew up in Tennessee and played at Kentucky – can appreciate the Northwestern Wildcats of the Big Ten. Coached by former Duke star and Coach K understudy Chris Collins, the team that calls itself “Chicago’s Big Ten Team” was undoubtedly the biggest story on Day 1 of the NCAA Tournament after winning its first-ever tournament game, 68-66, in Salt Lake City over Vanderbilt.
As a broadcaster for the SEC Network, I’ve watched Vandy all year and was impressed with their good shooting and smart play during a stretch run in which they went 7-2 to sneak into the Big Dance as a 9 seed. Up 66-65 with 15 seconds left, it looked as if the Commodores hot streak would continue when, uncharacteristically, Vanderbilt had a player-coach communication breakdown. Matthew Fisher-Davis, Vandy’s leading scorer on the day with 22 points, missed a call from Coach Bryce Drew and errantly fouled Northwestern’s Bryan McIntosh – an 89 percent free-throw shooter.
Feeling no pressure from 78 years of NCAA drought, McIntosh sank his free-throws and the OTHER Wildcat Nation in this year’s Big Dance partied it up, March Madness style, from Utah to Illinois. Fisher-Davis was tough on himself after the game, but I can’t fault him – Northwestern had a 15-point lead at one point in the game and the Commodores would not have come back without Fisher-Davis’ overall spectacular play. Give credit to the Northwestern Wildcats for getting their historic, first-ever tournament win.
That said, there’s only so much ink I can devote to the Wildcats from the North, because my Big Blue Cats from Kentucky take on in-state rival Northern Kentucky tonight in Indianapolis. UK is riding an 11-game win streak and carrying what is arguably the most talented roster into Day 2 of the Tournament. My former boss, Coach John Calipari, has Kentucky peaking at the right time.
As usual, Coach Cal has lots of young talent that is blossoming in March. Freshman guard De’Aaron Fox is playing his best ball of the season and has the ability to both take over games, and create plays for his teammates. Two other key freshmen – Bam Adebayo and Malik Monk – are also maturing and dominating games at times. Bam has improved miles through the course of the season and when he stays out of foul-trouble, he provides top-level post presence on offense and helps lead the defense as a rim-protector. Malik is a high-level player, capable of taking over the game by making challenged-shots and by making clutch plays. Coach Cal has these freshmen buying into the system and committing on the defensive end of the floor, which is huge this time of year.
I also can’t forget the senior leaders for Kentucky – Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins. These guys are key contributors off the bench, but most importantly, they’ve been here before. In the NCAA Tournament you need to treat every possession like it’s your last and sometimes it’s difficult to instill that sense of urgency in young players. Willis and Hawkins have been part of multiple deep tournament runs and they’ll help ensure that, in a close game, the young players take care of the ball, play defense and make good decisions.
John Calipari would never let his team look past Northern Kentucky, but as an analyst I have that privilege. When I look into the future, I see Wichita State as Kentucky’s likeliest opponent, but their opponent – Dayton – is no slouch either.
Wichita State and Dayton play the game before the Wildcats in Indy and this might be the best match-up of the entire first round. Wichita State is probably under-seeded as a No. 11, riding a 15-game winning streak in to the South Regional. Coach Greg Marshall’s Shockers play great D and shoot the 3, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that they are 0-3 against BPI top-50 teams. Dayton, also very well coached by Archie Miller, is a tough team from a tough league and they’ve made deep tournament runs in the recent past. Really, this game is too close to pick either way.
Today’s other games that I’ll be interested in include No. 8 Arkansas of my SEC vs. No. 9 Seton Hall of the Big East in the South Regional, as well as another SEC team – 7-seeded South Carolina – making its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 13 years – against 10-seed Marquette in the East Regional. Without many upset yesterday, expect the unexpected in what promise to be an exciting Day 2 of March Madness.