How Kentucky and Northern Kentucky match up at every position — with a game prediction:
▪ Has Kentucky survived the “Monk funk?” Since scoring 27 points in UK’s home-finale victory over Vanderbilt, freshman star Malik Monk — the tallest of the three guards in the Cats’ starting lineup at 6-foot-3 — has made only 14 of 43 field goals, three of 15 three-pointers over four games. If you are a glass-half-full type, you note UK won all four of those games with its leading scorer (20.4 ppg) struggling and figure Monk is past due for an offensive explosion. If you lean more toward a glass half-empty, you will worry Monk is off at just the time the games really matter.
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▪ Northern Kentucky’s Jordan Garnett, a 6-5 220-pound junior from Indianapolis, does the blue-collar things for the Norse. Garnett (4.8 ppg, 3.2 rpg) held Youngstown State’s Cameron Morse, averaging 23.1 ppg at the time, to 13 on 4-of-14 shooting. Though not a big scorer, Garnett has had a knack for sticking clutch three-pointers late in games.
▪ Kentucky senior Derek Willis averaged only 6.0 ppg in the SEC Tournament, but was an aggressive rebounder (22 in three games) and active weak-side defender (seven blocked shots). The 6-foot-9, 228-pound Bullitt East product (6.9 ppg, 5.2 rpg) did not play especially well in his last NCAA tourney game, going 0-of-2 from the floor and failing to score in Kentucky’s round-of-32 loss to Indiana in 2016.
▪ The state of Kentucky’s 2016 Mr. Basketball at Owen County, Carson Williams has had a strong freshman season for Northern Kentucky. The 6-5, 230 pounder was named to the Horizon League All-Freshman Team after averaging 10.5 ppg and 5.8 rpg. Though undersize, Williams has nevertheless been productive against power-five conference foes. He had 10 points and 14 rebounds in NKU’s loss at Illinois and 12 points and six boards in a defeat at West Virginia.
▪ The arrow is pointed straight up on the stock that is UK freshman center Bam Adebayo. In his last nine games, the 6-10, 260-pound freshman from Little Washington, N.C., is averaging 14.3 ppg and 10.4 rpg. Adebayo (13.3 ppg, 7.8 rpg for the season) should be in line for a big game against smaller NKU.
▪ Northern Kentucky’s Drew McDonald leads the Norse in scoring (16.4) and rebounding (7.7). A 6-7, 250-pound sophomore from Newport Catholic, McDonald made the All-Horizon League First Team, Horizon League All-Academic Team and conference all-tournament team. He has not fared well against power-five league foes, shooting 3-of-10 against Illinois and 0-of-4 vs. West Virginia.
▪ Kentucky’s Isaiah Briscoe played well in the Cats’ SEC tourney opener vs. Georgia (8-of-15 shooting, 20 points) but was less effective (combined 3-of-12 shooting) in UK’s final two games in Nashville. It has been an up-and-down season overall for the 6-3, 210-pound sophomore from Newark, N.J. (12.6 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 4.1 assists). In the 2016 NCAA tourney, Briscoe had a double-double (13 points, 11 rebounds) in UK’s opening win over Stony Brook and had seven points and three rebounds in the round-of-32 loss to Indiana.
▪ NKU senior Cole Murray (10.2 ppg, 3.2 rpg) has made 257 career three-point shots, fifth in school history. A 6-7, 210-pound senior from Delphi, Ind., Murray has made a robust 40.6 percent (99-of-244) of his three-point attempts this season. In the Horizon League Tournament, Murray was not dialed in from three-point range — he went 3-for-16.
▪ Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox (16.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 4.8 assists) was sensational in earning SEC Tournament MVP honors. The electric 6-3, 187-pound freshman hit 21 of 34 shots and averaged 22 points a game. A 24.2 percent three-point shooter during the season, the Houston product was even making treys (3-of-5) in Nashville. Obviously, if Fox continues to play like that, UK’s Final Four chances become much better.
▪ NKU’s Lavone Holland II was Horizon League Tournament MVP after averaging 18.7 points and 5.3 assists in the three Norse victories. A 6-foot-1, 185-pound junior from Louisville, Holland was a teammate at Ballard High School of Louisville’s Quentin Snider and Butler’s Kelan Martin on the team that lost to Dominique Hawkins and Madison Central in the 2013 Sweet Sixteen finals. For the season, Holland, who transferred to NKU from Coffeyville (Kansas) Community College, is averaging 14.3 ppg and 4.2 assists.
▪ Kentucky’s Dominique Hawkins made the All-SEC Tournament Team after energizing the Wildcats with his grit. Since Feb. 14, the 6-foot, 191-pound senior from Richmond has raised his scoring average from 3.8 to 4.2. Over his last six games, UK senior Mychal Mulder is 4-for-16 on three-point shots. If Kentucky is to make a deep March run, there’s a good chance UK will need the 6-4, 185-pound product of Windsor, Ontario, Canada, to make shots in at least one game. In one sense, 7-foot sophomore Isaac Humphries may be the most important player on the Cats’ roster. UK is 23-0 when the Australian scores at least one field goal in a game; they are 6-5 when he doesn’t.
▪ NKU has 10 players averaging in double-digit minutes on the season and an 11th playing 9.2 minutes a game. Bench scoring was crucial for Northern Kentucky in the Horizon League Tournament, as the Norse reserves outscored foes 55-24 over three games. Mason Faulkner, a 6-1, 165-pound freshman, was a First Team Kentucky All-Stater last year at Caverna. He is averaging 7.5 ppg and is capable of offensive outbursts, having dropped 29 on Detroit Mercy and 24 on Youngstown State.
No. 2 seed Kentucky has won more Division I NCAA Tournament games (121) than any school. A former Division II power, No. 15 seed Northern Kentucky made the Big Dance in its first season eligible for the D-I tourney. Under John Calipari, UK has played in four Final Fours and five Elite Eights. NKU’s John Brannen will be making his head coaching debut in the NCAA Tournament. Entering the 2017 NCAA tourney, No. 15 seeds were 8-120 against No. 2s since the bracket expanded to at least 64 teams in 1985.
Kentucky 92, Northern Kentucky 69