Hope remains for Kentucky ahead of NCAA Tournament

Published 1:44 pm Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Yes, UK’s setback to Tennessee in last Saturday’s SEC basketball tournament thriller was disappointing, but that doesn’t mean the Cats have lost their momentum for the NCAA tourney.

For instance, look at the 2012 Wildcats who were led by freshman superstar Anthony Davis. They lost to Vanderbilt in the SEC tourney final before winning the whole thing at New Orleans.

Look at coach Frank Martin’s 2017 South Carolina team. The Gamecocks lost their first game of the SEC tournament but advanced all the way to the Final Four.

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“I think they’re in a great frame of mind,” UK coach John Calipari said Monday of his team’s preparation for NCAA tourney.

With Kentucky – one of the leading Final Four contenders — gunning for school’s ninth national championship, it means the March Madness is sure going to be electrifying to watch. And, in less than two weeks, we’ll find out who will be the four fortunate schools to reach Minneapolis, site of this year’s Final Four.

As you know, the No. 2 seed Wildcats, who have a 27-6 mark, have been placed in Midwest Region where the other top teams include No. 1 seed North Carolina, No. 3 seed Houston and No. 4 seed Kansas. Not too bad for Kentucky. These teams are good but not dominating. None of its potential foes are considered unstoppable like top-ranked Duke which has Zion Williamson, a probable No. 1 NBA Draft pick this summer.

Also remember Kentucky defeated the Tar Heels 80-72 and the Jayhawks 71-63 earlier in the season.

So UK’s road to the Final Four isn’t real bumpy despite the fact it’s not playing at Louisville’s KFC Yum! Center, the site of the South Region.

UK’s roadblocks for the Final Four are Thursday night’s first-round game with another group of Wildcats, No.15 seed Abilene Christian (7:10 p.m. ET, CBS) in Jacksonville. If Kentucky advances, the Wildcats will battle against No. 7 seed Wofford, which is ranked No. 19 in this week’s (and final) AP Top 25 poll, on Saturday. The small private school (less than 1,700 students) from Spartanburg, S.C., should beat Seton Hall in the other first-round contest, in my opinion.

Wofford (29-4) has a chance to become the new NCAA tournament darling or Cinderella this time around. The Terriers, who will be making their fifth trip to the Big Dance since 2010, are battle-tested as they have beaten South Carolina 81-61 in Columbia, and dropped to North Carolina (78-67), Oklahoma (75-64), Mississippi State (98-87) and Kansas (72-47) in nonconference action. During the 2017-18 campaign, Wofford upset North Carolina 79-75 in Chapel Hill.

The Terriers have one Kentuckian on their roster. He is 6-2 sophomore reserve guard Tray Hollowell, a two-time All-Stater from University Heights Academy in Hopkinsville who is averaging 5.1 points. His uncle is Isiah Victor, who formerly played for the Tennessee Volunteers.

If Kentucky doesn’t get overconfident or cocky with Wofford, the Wildcats should be okay and move on to Sweet Sixteen in Kansas City. The opponent likely will be No. 3 seed Houston (31-3), which is coached by former Indiana and Oklahoma boss Kelvin Sampson, who is in his fifth year at the Cougar helm. Back in mid-December, Houston stopped LSU 82-76.

A win over Houston would propel UK to an Elite Eight showdown with North Carolina, a probable opponent. But either Kansas or No. 5 seed Auburn could knock out the Tar Heels in Sweet Sixteen.

Anyhow, the potential Kentucky-UNC marquee showdown should be a nail-biter. If the Wildcats prevail, they would become Coach Cal’s fifth UK squad to reach the Final Four.

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Joining UK in the Big Dance are three other schools from the state of Kentucky – Murray State (in West Region), Northern Kentucky (West) and Louisville (East).

The No. 12 seed Murray State is exciting to watch. The 27-4 Racers will face No. 5 seed Marquette in the first round.

Murray State, which clinched an automatic berth in the Big Dance after capturing the Ohio Valley Conference tourney, features one of the nation’s most exciting players in Ja Morant. A 6-3 sophomore guard from Dalzell, S.C., Morant recently was named second team All-American by Sporting News after averaging 24.6 points and 5.5 rebounds. He was also selected the OVC Player of the Year as well as the conference tourney’s MVP.

Since the assist stat became official during the mid-1980s, Morant, interestingly, can become the first-ever player to average at least 20 points and 10 assists per game. Morant has been projected as a possible No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, behind Duke’s Williamson.

The Racers, guided by fourth-year coach Matt McMahon, will be making their 17th appearance in the Big Dance. Last season, Murray State also played in the NCAA tournament as a No. 12 seed but dropped to No. 5 seed West Virginia 85-68 in the opening round in San Diego.

McMahon once served as a graduate assistant to head coach Buzz Peterson at Tennessee. He also played for Peterson at Appalachian State.

Murray State and UK have never met in a basketball game.

Northern Kentucky (26-8) is led by Horizon League tournament MVP Drew McDonald, a 6-8, 250-pound senior from Newport Central Catholic High where he was a Mr. Kentucky Basketball finalist.

Two of NKU’s losses this season were to Cincinnati, a Top 25 squad, 78-65 and Eastern Kentucky 76-74 in early December, both on the road.

Fourth-year NKU coach John Brannen, a former Alabama Crimson Tide assistant and a Kentucky native who was a finalist for Rhodes Scholar during his college days, also led the Norse to 2017 NCAA Tournament and 2018 NIT. As you’ll remember, it was Kentucky which eliminated NKU 79-70 in the first round of NCAA in 2017.

Speaking of U of L, first-year coach Chris Mack has done a remarkable job in bringing the Cardinals back to respectability after a series of black clouds which plagued the once-proud program in recent years. No. 7 seed Louisville is 20-13 and will face its former coach’s son, Richard Pitino, and the Minnesota Gophers.

By the way, I personally thought it was kind of mean for NCAA to match U of L and Minnesota in the first round because of Rick Pitino’s connections with both schools, including his ugly departure from Louisville.

Before he came to U of L, Mack saw his Xavier teams earn eight NCAA tournament trips in nine years, including four appearances in Sweet Sixteen or beyond (Elite Eight in 2017).

In addition to schools from Kentucky and the SEC, there are several other Bluegrass connections in the Big Dance. For instance, you have former UK assistant Leonard Hamilton coaching Florida State. You have ex-UK standout Travis Ford coaching St. Louis. You have Kentucky native Chris Holtmann, who played at Jessamine County High School, coaching Ohio State.

You also have another team from OVC – Nashville’s Belmont – playing in the tournament, too. It is the first time since 1987 that OVC has sent two teams to college hoops’ biggest stage.

And you got No. 2 seed Tennessee shooting for its first-ever Final Four appearance in school history.

Wow! This tournament, filled with lots of fascinating storylines, is going to be a dandy one to watch. As you can tell, the March Madness certainly has arrived.

Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor and founder of KySportsStyle.com magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.