Underdog university could do unthinkable, make columnist proud



Column by Tim Kroboth

Hey, do you know who UK will play in the first round of the NCAA Tournament yet? The Southeastern Conference Tournament and Selection Sunday are still in the future, but I bet I do.

Somehow, I just know that the NCAA Tournament selection committee is conspiring against me.

Regardless of whether the Cats win the SEC Tournament, the committee is going to match UK against my school, Winthrop University.

The Winthrop Eagles claimed the Big South Conference Tournament title last weekend by beating the top-seeded and arch-rival Coastal Carolina Chanticleers on the Chants’ home court in the championship game 64-53.

While the Cats almost certainly will be a No. 1 seed, the 19-13 Eagles in the same way have the mark of a No.16 seed. The Eagles have a losing record against teams in the top 200 of the RPI and not a single win against top 100 RPI teams.

If you are not yet convinced of their 16 seed worthiness, in last month’s ESPNU Bracket Busters matchup with Eastern Kentucky, the Eagles lost to the Colonels by 20, 77-57.

Thus far, as a Winthrop student spending the 2009-10 academic year at UK through the National Student Exchange program, I have not been faced with the prospect of the Eagles playing the Cats in any sport. And honestly, being a sports-loving full-time student at both schools simultaneously would not be a big deal if Winthrop played UK in soccer or softball.

But if my Eagles squared off against my Cats in the Big Dance, I would be highly conflicted. I have made great friends and memories at both Winthrop and UK. And I have cheered shamelessly for both basketball teams, whether it has been in the eRUPPtion Zone at Rupp Arena or in the WU Crew at Winthrop Coliseum.

Of course, you may think I have no reason to bother thinking about which team I would root for. A No. 16 seed has never defeated a No. 1 seed in the history of March Madness. And on paper, UK would rout Winthrop by at least 40 points.

I will not waste your time discussing individual matchups because quite frankly, the Cats would have a decisive advantage over the Eagles in every category imaginable. Even UK’s towel and Gatorade managers would wipe the floor with their Winthrop counterparts.

But I think the Eagles would relish a shot at the Cats. The last time the Eagles played an SEC team in the NCAA Tournament, they nearly won. In the 2006 tournament, the No. 2 seed Tennessee Volunteers barely escaped the Eagles in the first round, thanks only to Chris Lofton’s jumper with one second left that lifted Rocky Top to a 63-61 victory. But then again, that was only Tennessee, right?

Well, only one year later, the Eagles broke Digger Phelps’ heart as they upset Notre Dame 74-64 in the first round. Senior forward and two-time Big South Defensive Player of the Year Mantoris Robinson was on that team and he knows what it takes to pull off a big win in the Big Dance.

Winthrop does not have any great scoring threats: only sophomore guard Reggie Middleton’s points per game average is in double figures. But the Eagles are tenacious on defense, holding opponents to less than 62 points a game.

Before the Big South title game, Winthrop head coach Randy Peele instructed his players to hold Coastal Carolina to 50 points. The Eagles slacked off a little: Coastal scored 53.

And don’t forget UK has lost two of its last three games against Big South teams. Remember Gardner-Webb and the Virginia Military Institute?

So, it matters whether I would support UK or Winthrop. And who would I cheer for?

Logically, supporting Winthrop would be futile. Although there seems to be no way the Eagles could upset the Cats, how could I betray the university that will be my alma mater?

As my Winthrop student government shirt declares, “I heart WU.” And for me, Winthrop-UK would simply be a matter of the heart.

Go Eagles! Beat Kentucky!