An early look at the South Region — which includes No. 2 seed Kentucky:
Road of rematches
For Kentucky to earn its fifth Final Four trip of the John Calipari era, it is possible the Wildcats will have to surmount an arduous trek of high-profile rematches:
▪ No. 1 seed North Carolina (27-7) and Kentucky engaged in a scintillating 103-100 shootout in December in Las Vegas that the Wildcats won on the back of Malik Monk’s 47 points. One suspects Roy Williams has not forgotten UNC’s 76-69 loss to Calipari and UK in the 2011 East Region finals, either.
Carolina leads the all-time series with Kentucky 23-15, including a 2-1 edge in NCAA Tournament matchups. Under Calipari, however, UK has won five of seven from North Carolina.
▪ No. 3 seed UCLA (29-4) scored a 97-92 victory over Kentucky in Rupp Arena on Dec. 3. The game was notable as one of the few high-profile showdowns of Calipari’s tenure in which the opponent’s freshmen were more impressive than UK’s. UCLA power forward T.J. Leaf had 17 points, 13 rebounds and five assists. Freshman classmate Lonzo Ball overcame a slow start to put up 14 points, seven assists and six rebounds from the point.
Steve Alford’s Bruins have beaten UK two seasons in a row, though the Wildcats lead the all-time series 7-6. The teams have split two NCAA tourney meetings, with UCLA claiming the 1975 championship game and UK winning in the 1998 round of 16.
▪ No. 10 Wichita State (30-4). In the 2014 round of 32, Kentucky ended No. 1 seed Wichita State’s bid for an undefeated national title with a 78-76 win. If Gregg Marshall and the Shockers get past No. 7 Dayton and UK handles No. 15 Northern Kentucky, a round of 32 rematch will be at hand.
Marshall has led Wichita State to nine NCAA Tournament wins in the past four seasons. The 2014 NCAA tourney classic between UK and WSU is the only prior meeting between the schools.
▪ No. 4 Butler (23-8). Only 185 miles separate the UK campus from the Indianapolis school, yet there is no significant basketball history between the Wildcats and Bulldogs. UK is 4-0 all-time against Butler, and the teams have never played in the NCAA Tournament.
If the teams were to meet this year, it would be in the round of eight. Kentuckians would find familiar faces on the Butler sidelines: Bulldogs Coach Chris Holtmann played in the 1990 Sweet Sixteen for Jessamine County. Bulldogs standout forward Kelan Martin (16.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg) helped Ballard to the 2013 state tournament finals.
▪ No. 6 Cincinnati (29-4). There is only 85.3 miles between UK and UC, but the schools have recently only played hoops when paired by the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats have had the better of the Bearcats in the Big Dance, beating UC in the 2005 and 2015 round of 32. Conventional wisdom is that the current Bearcats are a touch more potent offensively (75 points a game) than has been typical of Mick Cronin-coached teams.
▪ No. 7 Dayton (24-7). Though UK and UD are only 134 miles apart, the Cats and Flyers have met only five times, with UK leading 3-2. Their only NCAA Tournament matchup came in 1966 when Rupp’s Runts overcame 36 points from 7-footer Henry Finkel to score an 86-79 win in the round of 16. Under Coach Archie Miller, Dayton has played in three straight NCAA tourneys and advanced to the round of eight in 2014.
▪ No. 12 Middle Tennessee State (30-4). Separated by 248 miles, UK and MTSU have, nevertheless, only played once. That meeting was memorable, albeit for all the wrong reasons from the Kentucky perspective. In the 1982 NCAA Tournament, with Louisville awaiting the winner, Middle Tennessee shocked Kentucky 50-44. The current Blue Raiders have a pretty good upset pedigree, too. Last season, as a No. 15 seed, Coach Kermit Davis’ team stunned No. 2 seed Michigan State.
▪ No. 5 seed Minnesota (24-9). The Golden Gophers’ head coach is a former Lexington resident. Richard Pitino, son of the former Kentucky Wildcats head man Rick, spent part of his youth in Lexington.
▪ No. 16 seed Texas Southern (23-11). Former Indiana and UAB head coach Mike Davis has found a niche coaching the Tigers. Under Davis, Texas Southern is making its third NCAA trip in the past four seasons.
UK’s first -round foe, No. 15 seed Northern Kentucky (24-10), is a home-state success story. A former NCAA Division II power, NKU made the Division I NCAA tourney this season in its first year of eligibility.
Kentucky-produced talent has fueled the rise of the Norse. Leading scorer Drew McDonald (16.2 ppg, 7.7 rpg), a 6-7, 250-pound forward, is from Newport Catholic. Guard Lavone Holland II (14.3 ppg, 4.1 assists) played with Kelan Martin and Quentin Snider at Ballard.
Carson Williams, Kentucky’s 2016 Mr. Basketball from Owen County, has had a strong freshman year, averaging 10.5 points and 5.8 rebounds. Caverna product Mason Faulkner, a 6-1, 165-pound freshman guard, has contributed 7.5 points, 2.4 rebounds and 2.1 assists.
Norse Coach John Brannen is also a Kentuckian, having been a high school star at Newport Catholic before playing in college at Morehead State and Marshall. He is a former Eastern Kentucky assistant who was also an aide to Anthony Grant at Alabama.