Kentucky's different breed of Cats

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ARLINGTON, Texas -- The text messages start going back and forth every Selection Sunday.

"Happy anniversary," they usually start.

And then the group gets down to the real business at hand, scanning the bracket to find the No. 8 seeds.

Twenty-nine years ago, eighth-seeded Villanova upset Georgetown in what remains the NCAA tournament's quintessential Cinderella moment. No national champion since has been seeded eighth or lower.

Some of the Villanova players, who make up that group-text tradition, would like to keep it that way.

"They're like, 'Oh my god, I don't want the streak to be broken,'" said Ed Pinckney, the most outstanding player from the 1985 Final Four. "We do have a couple of Mercury Morrises [the outspoken member of the 1972 Miami Dolphins' undefeated team] on our team."

The angst among the old Villanova guard is a little higher this weekend. Another No. 8 seed is playing for a national title.

And it is not just any No. 8 seed.

It's the University of Kentucky, home to eight national championships and the most wins in NCAA history.

"The only thing we have in common is we're both Wildcats," Pinckney said.

Seriously, the only reason Kentucky is a No. 8 seed is because the Wildcats underachieved during the regular season. Were it not for bizarre losses to Arkansas and South Carolina, Kentucky easily would have moved up the seed list. Even with those losses, the Cats probably should have been higher.

They look about as much like Cinderella (pre-fairy-princess intervention) as Heidi Klum.

The Wildcats started the season as the No. 1 team in the nation and boast a roster stuffed with some of the most highly coveted recruits in the country. The team was so good there was even talk -- crazy talk, but talk -- that Kentucky could go 40-0.

A horse-writing friend of mine from Kentucky compared the Wildcats to War Emblem, the 2002 Derby winner who went off as a 20-to-1 shot despite being the fastest horse in the field.

This was always the team that should have been favored to win, but losses conspired to cloud people's judgment.

Villanova was more like a sturdy pack mule. Rollie Massimino's team was a rightful 9-point underdog in that title game and had to play the perfect game to win. It did -- limiting possessions and barely missing. Villanova's 28 field goal attempts and 78.6 field goal percentage from that game still rank as title game records.

The Wildcats had good players, but only two, Pinckney and Harold Pressley, had any sort of NBA careers. Pinckney played for 12 years, Pressley for four.

The hero of the game, sophomore Harold Jensen, whose free throws down the stretch sealed the win, is a marketing executive.

"[Guard] Dwayne McClain wasn't exactly one of the Harrison twins," Pinckney said. "We have absolutely nothing in common. Nothing."

Now an assistant with the Chicago Bulls, Pinckney is not among the Mercury Morris subset of ex-Villanova players. He figures, like all streaks or records, his Wildcats' run will inevitably end someday.

But he can't help but be amused at the idea that it could be Kentucky -- not some mid-major scrapper -- whose name will forever be linked with Villanova's in the record books.

Pinckney saw a video recently of John Calipari giving a tour of the Wildcats' new $8 million Wildcat Coal Lodge, the players' tricked-out dormitory,

"They've got like two chefs," Pinckney said. "You know, in case one needs a day off. We worked out in some nautilus trailer. We had antiquated trailers. We ate at Dougherty Dining Hall."

That doesn't include Kentucky's recently renovated locker room, where part of the 2012 Final Four floor was laid down, the seven-year-old, $30 million Joe Craft Center practice facility and the upcoming renovations to Rupp Arena.

Villanova practiced at Jake Nevin Field House, a throwback gym complete with a stage at one end.

"It was a joke," Pinckney said.

Maybe the biggest difference, though, is the median age of the two rosters. That's probably the only thing that makes Kentucky anything more Cinderella than Villanova.

The Villanova team that played in that national title game started three seniors and two juniors. Of the guys who came off the bench, one (Jensen) was a sophomore, another (Mark Plansky) was a freshman, and another (Chuck Everson) was a junior.

You might have heard that Kentucky is starting five freshmen.

Pinckney, a former Villanova assistant, has watched this NCAA tournament in near fascination at the Wildcats' success.

"What does Cal even tell them?" he asked. "There's no frame of reference for anything. When we played, we could always go back to some game a few years ago that was tough but that we pulled out. What are they going off of?"

But Pinckney's curiosity about the Cats doesn't mean he's rooting for them to win.

He's a Big East guy, for starters, but more, he's a Kevin Ollie fan.

Pinckney coached Ollie in Minnesota, and five years ago, after the Timberwolves played the Jazz, the two caught a 5 a.m. flight out of Salt Lake City to Detroit. Pinckney's Wildcats and Ollie's Huskies were both playing there in the Final Four.

"I remember him saying then, 'I'd love to get involved in this. This is great,'" Pinckney said. "Now look at him. He's coaching in the national championship game. It's crazy."

Ollie, of course, has a pretty good underdog too. The Huskies didn't exactly come to mind when people started making their list of national champion favorites in November.

Or three weeks ago.

Pinckney can relate to a team like that.

Plus, UConn is a 7-seed.

And not an eight.

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