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May 28, 2012Kentucky baseball coach Gary Henderson didn't mince words a couple hours after learning his team's NCAA Tournament draw on Monday.
"I think we got screwed," he said.
Kentucky (43-16) was not selected as one of 16 teams to host a four-team regional in the NCAA Tournament, a reward the Wildcats felt they had earned after finishing a game out of first place in the Southeastern Conference regular season and reaching the SEC Tournament semifinals.
Instead, UK received the No. 2 seed in the Gary (Ind.) Regional, alongside No. 1 Purdue (44-12), No. 3 Kent State (41-17) and No. 4 Valparaiso (35-23).
The Cats will face Kent State on Friday in the double-elimination tournament.
"You would like to know what the real motivations are, what the real criteria is," Henderson said, regarding the selection committee's decision. "There are so many general, vague, hollow things that they throw out that you're never really able to put your finger on anything."
Henderson tried, wondering if it was UK's regular-season finish - losing three of its last four SEC series, including a sweep to Mississippi State on the final weekend - its facilities or its nonconference strength of schedule that led to the perceived snub.
For each, though, Henderson provided a counterpoint.
UK won each of its first six SEC series and finished with a 6-3 record against the three conference teams - Florida, LSU, South Carolina - that earned a national seed. (Florida is the tournament's No. 1 overall seed.) UK's Cliff Hagan Stadium was prepared to add seating for the weekend and expected to fill it up.
UK was 23-3 in non-conference play, but Louisville, which beat UK in both their meetings; and Dayton, which UK defeated 19-6 in Lexington; were the Cats' only non-SEC opponents that made the NCAA field.
"I don't apologize for any of our non-conference schedule," Henderson said, explaining it was made two years in advance and would be impossible to project how its strength would turn out.
UK catch Luke Maile said he takes exception to any critics who cited UK's nonconference schedule as a weakness.
"I think that's just flat-out wrong," he said. "If you line our nonconference schedule up with (the nonleague schedules of) a lot of the teams that are in this (tournament), that's just an inaccurate statement. It's not even a debate."
Starting pitcher Taylor Rogers saw the silver lining in the selection, which he described as a "shock." After being doubted through much of its hot start in SEC play, the Wildcats now have even more motivation.
"We play with a chip on our shoulder," he said. "Now that this happened to us, we might play with a couple chips on our shoulder."
As the week progresses, however, Henderson wants his team to move on from the disappointment and recalibrate for the regional.
"We had a nice 15-minute talk - which is very long for us - about the reality of life and perspective," Henderson said. "It may not be the last time you get the short end of the stick. What we can't do is hold onto it Friday night. We have to move on with it, because if you don't show up, you're going to get beat."
UK first faces Kent State, who won the Mid-American Conference Tournament and holds a nation-best 17-game winning streak.
"Personally, I know they're in Ohio, and that's about it," Rogers said a couple hours after the field was announced. "I don't even know their mascot just yet."
Henderson said he was going to study the matchups before making any decisions on his pitching rotation for the regional, which will be Kentucky's first NCAA appearance since 2008.
The winner of the four-team regional will advance to the two-team Super Regional series against the winner of the Eugene (Ore.) Regional.
The eight Super Regional winners advance to the College World Series.
Big Ten Conference champion Purdue is UK's regional host, but the games are being played away from their home field, at U.S. Steel Yard in Gary - a minor league stadium.
The Cats' tournament run won't start in Lexington like they hoped, but the players maintained they will be ready come Friday.
"Apparently we have a lot to prove right now," Maile said. "But we were going to try and win a regional championship anyway. It doesn't change anything. We just have to play it at a different location."