When it goes dancing this week, Kentucky might as well be wearing sparkly red shoes, clicking its heels together three times and saying: “There’s no place like home.”
The Cats will play on some variation of their home court in every round of the NCAA Tournament leading up to the Final Four in the road map drawn up by the selection committee and announced on Monday night.
If No. 3 seed UK should keep advancing in the NCAA Tournament — starting on Saturday against UNC Asheville — it would play the first two rounds in Memorial Coliseum and then head to Rupp Arena for the region semifinals and finals.
It’s a dream come true for a Kentucky native like Makayla Epps.
“It’s just a really big feeling, a lot of emotion,” the junior guard said after the NCAA Tournament selection show party at the Woodford Reserve Room in Commonwealth Stadium.
“Whenever the Lexington Region came up, I felt butterflies in my stomach. I want to play at home. I want to play in Memorial. I want to play at Rupp. I want to play in front of the Big Blue Nation. It’s all home games for us, as long as we handle business and get the job done.”
It seemed likely that the tournament’s overall No. 2 seed and Southeastern Conference rival South Carolina was headed to Lexington based on the NCAA’s bracketing principles that include geography and also call for the top four teams from each league being separated into different regions first.
But ultimately, the Gamecocks were shipped to the Sioux Falls, S.D., Region and the third-best team in the field, Notre Dame, was sent to be the No. 1 seed in the Lexington Region.
“The rumors, the chatter, we were hearing that we might go somewhere else, but it’s a great opportunity for us and we’re excited to get back on the floor, try to work our way through the tournament,” UK senior Janee Thompson said of the surprise home stand.
In a conference call after the bracket was unveiled, NCAA Selection Committee Chairwoman Chris Dawson seemed to hint that ticket sales were a factor, citing “student athlete welfare and an attempt to balance the bracket as best we could.”
The move was not unprecedented. Last season, the roles were flipped and the second-best team overall, Notre Dame, was sent to Oklahoma City while the third-best team, South Carolina, had its region in nearby Greensboro.
Dawson also mentioned another NCAA Tournament policy that said a team is obligated to drive when a site is 350 miles away or fewer. Lexington was within that distance for the Irish while it was going to be a flight either way for the Gamecocks, who beat UK three times this season.
UK Coach Matthew Mitchell, who is a member of the executive committee of the coaches’ association, said he wasn’t surprised to see the shift that kept the Cats (23-7) in Lexington for the tournament.
“The overall goal of the tournament is to be very competitive, but also be more successful financially,” he said. “I’m not surprised from that standpoint. But that’s what they wanted, people that wanted women’s basketball and wanted these regionals. They wanted you to step up and bid, and that’s what the University of Louisville did a couple years ago, that’s what we’ve done now.”
He credited the Kentucky administration for its willingness to put up the resources to host the region tournament at Rupp Arena even though there were no guarantees that UK would play there.
“It would be a great, great advantage for us to get to play in front of our hometown fans,” Mitchell said, but he said Kentucky has seen the reverse of that many times in this event, including facing Connecticut in Bridgeport recently.
There are no guarantees that Kentucky will advance to the regional at Rupp Arena. The Cats, a No. 3 seed or better for the fifth straight year, were upset in the second round by Dayton last season at Memorial Coliseum.
They face UNC Asheville in Saturday’s opening round with a potential meeting with either No. 11 seed Purdue (20-11) or sixth-seeded Oklahoma (21-10) in the second round. The Sooners are rated No. 24 in the final Associated Press poll.
If Kentucky were to advance to Rupp Arena, it faces what most pundits call the toughest bracket in the tournament. It includes the Irish (31-1), whose only loss this season was to three-time defending national champ UConn.
The No. 2 seed in the bracket is Maryland, which has won eight straight games, including the Big Ten championship. Other ranked teams in the Lexington Region include No. 4 seed Stanford and No. 5 seed Miami.
Said Mitchell: “It’s a very tough regional, but it should be, it’s the NCAA Tournament.”
UNC Asheville at Kentucky
When: 4 p.m.
What: NCAA first round
Tickets: Available online at www.ukhoopstix.com, in person at the Joe Craft Center Ticket Office or by calling the UK Ticket Office at 800-928-2287. Single-session reserved tickets are $22 (ages 19-64) or $15 (ages 0-18 and 65-plus). All-session ticket prices are $36 (ages 19-64) and $24 (ages 0-18 and 65-plus).