After Selection Sunday had passed, the ‘Cats were officially on the outside looking in for the NCAA Tournament. The bubble had burst, and Kentucky would have to wait three more hours to know where they would be going in the NIT. Many wondered if Kentucky would even accept the NIT bid. The selection committee, headed by former UK Athletics Director C.M. Newton, named the Kentucky Wildcats as the NIT’s #1 overall seed against #8 Robert Morris. The ‘Cats and Colonials will tip-off on Tuesday, March 19th at 7:30pm ET.
I’ve posed the question for weeks, ever since the ‘Cats began to bounce on the bubble, of whether or not we would see another NIT game played in Memorial Coliseum. The NCAA will be occupying Rupp Arena for their 2nd and 3rd round games. As the NIT’s top-seed, the ‘Cats would figure to host the game. Due to a limited staff because of the NCAA at Rupp, Kentucky was physically unable to host the game. The ‘Cats will have to travel to Robert Morris University in Moon Township, PA. Incidentally, Kentucky head coach John Calipari is from Moon Township. The Colonials play in the Sewell Center, which holds a mere 3,056 people and his only 1.1 miles away from Calipari’s old high school. Calipari’s grandmother also used to work in the cafeteria at RMU. Robert Morris officials fully expect to break the Sewell Center attendance record of 3,227 with the ‘Cats in town. The Colonials only averaged 1,046 fans per home game this season, the single-game attendance high was 2,093 and their total attendance for the year was 15, 692. Due to the game being on Tuesday, RMU has cancelled classes in part because the majority of their 5,000 students drive to school, and they wanted to avoid parking issues.
According to the White Pages, there are 81 people in the state of Kentucky named “Robert Morris”. The game against the Colonials will be the first time the ‘Cats have played a true road game against a non-conference D-I opponent in a gym as small as 3,056 seats since 1950. ESPN announcer Jimmy Dykes will be on the call for the game tomorrow night, where the ‘Cats are only favored by 5.5 points. For me, trying to compare these unique opponents is quite a challenge. Here is what I can gather about the ‘Cats next opponent:
The Colonials (23-10, 14-4) won the regular-season NEC Championship, and ranked 8th nationally in 3′s made per game. They are extremely guard-heavy, with no player being taller than 6’9”. RMU ranks 30th in 3pt.%, 31st in FT%, and 14th in steals per game. Their leading scorer, Karvel Anderson, scored 28 points in a game vs. Ohio. He was a perfect 8 of 8 from the 3-point line. The Colonials as a team average 8.6 3-pointers per game and shoots at 38% clip. Three players have made at least 43 3′s and over 42% on their attempts. The ‘Cats and Colonials share an opponent from the regular season, the Arkansas Razorbacks. The Wildcats went to Bud Walton Arena, and walked out with a 13-point loss. The Colonials made the same trip with the same result, but lost by only 5 points. Robert Morris has an RPI of 123, which ranks them ahead of 4 SEC Teams (Auburn 248, Mississippi State 230, South Carolina 226, Georgia 140). The ‘Cats current RPI ranking is 57, which puts them 4th in the SEC behind Florida (8), Missouri (35), and Ole Miss (48).
There is already plenty of chatter about whether the ‘Cats will actually want to show up and play. Robert Morris is beyond thrilled to be hosting the defending national champions, and the Sewell Center could be as lively as ever for the ‘Cats visit. The numbers indicate this team is not a bad team, but they do lack size with nobody above 6’9”. Calipari said he was glad his top-seeded ‘Cats get to play on the road, so the fans can make a judgement on spending money for any of their other games if they advance. If Kentucky is not motivated to play the game, the Colonials appear to be good enough, and tough enough to send them home a loser.
If the ‘Cats were to advance, the rest of their NIT matchups will be played in Rupp Arena until the field is narrowed down to four teams. With Calipari coming home, a possible rematch in Rupp with #2 Baylor, perhaps another shot at Tennessee, and then he could face his old stomping grounds vs. UMass in an NIT Championship game. There is a lot of emotional ties for the coach, but he isn’t playing along with the hype. He even told his wife Ellen not to make the trip to Pennsylvania because of the short stay. Like myself, Calpari said he was extremely happy that Robert Morris could have this opportunity to host a school like Kentucky on their campus.
After being on the NCAA’s door-step, just one game away from a spot in the tournament, Kentucky is blown out by Vanderbilt. How do they respond to this? In rare cases this season, the ‘Cats have rose to the challenge (see rematch with Florida, Missouri, @ Ole Miss), but have been shaky as of late. Has this team already thrown in the towel? I assume we will all find out when the ball is tipped at 7:30 on Tuesday.