Eight Kentuckians (and more) to watch in the NCAA Tournament

Lipscomb forward Eli Pepper (22) dunked in the second half against Tennessee on Dec. 9, 2017, in Knoxville.
Lipscomb forward Eli Pepper (22) dunked in the second half against Tennessee on Dec. 9, 2017, in Knoxville. AP

The list of Kentuckians in this year’s NCAA Tournament field include some early March Madness heroes, a former University of Kentucky guard and several former high school phenoms.

Catch up with them here:

Players to watch

Eli Pepper and Matt Rose, Lipscomb: The Bisons (23-9) were an early Cinderella entry to the Big Dance when they knocked off top-seeded Florida Gulf Coast in the Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament championship on March 4. Lipscomb led by 32 in that game before having to hold on for a 108-96 victory. It is the school’s first trip to the NCAA Tournament.

Eli Pepper, a 6-foot-9 junior forward out of Caldwell County, had 13 points, six rebounds and four assists in the conference title game. Former Lexington Christian star Matt Rose, a 6-7 sophomore forward, added 14 points, including three three-pointers.

“It means a ton that we are the first men’s basketball team from Lipscomb to go to the tournament,” Pepper said, according to a news release by the school. “A lot of people will go to tournaments, but you can’t take it away from us that we are the first team to do it. It will be awesome to tell our friends we meet along the way, and to tell our kids one day, we were the first team ever. You can’t beat that.”

For the season, Pepper is averaging 7.0 points and team-high 7.9 rebounds. Rose averages 8.4 points and 2.9 rebounds while shooting 38.0 percent from long range.

“Eli Pepper is on pace to be Lipscomb’s leading rebounder of all time,” Lipscomb Coach Casey Alexander said. “He brings real toughness … a real blue-collar mentality. Eli is just a guy who wants to do whatever he can. There is no stat that reflects that better than rebounding.”

ASUN Lipscomb Fla Gulf Coast Basketball
Lipscomb guard Garrison Mathews, center right, hugged teammate Eli Pepper (22) after the Bisons won the Atlantic Sun Conference championship game against Florida Gulf Coast on March 4 in Fort Myers, Fla. Nicole Raucheisen Naples Daily News via AP

Lipscomb’s Matt Rose, center, battled for the ball with teammate Aaron Korn, left, and Tennessee’s John Fulkerson on Dec. 9, 2017, in Knoxville. Calvin Mattheis AP

Pepper said he’s not a prototypical rebounder.

“It has always been one of my knacks. … I am not the most able-bodied person to be a rebounder,” he said. “I am not a physical player. But I will put a body on people. I will go fetch a ball. Rebounding is definitely underappreciated, but it keeps me on the court.”

Pepper averaged 17.6 points and 14.3 rebounds per game as a high school senior. Rose, who transferred from Samford, was a Southern Conference All-Freshman selection while playing for Scott Padgett. He averaged 22.1 points and 8.6 rebounds as a senior at LCA.

Butler forward Kelan Martin celebrated during the second half of the team’s game against Creighton in Indianapolis on Feb. 20. Michael Conroy AP

Kelan Martin, Butler: The 6-foot-7 senior out of Ballard was a first-team All-Big East selection by the conference’s coaches and was named a top-five finalist for the Julius Erving Award given to the best small forward in the nation. Martin is the Bulldogs’ leading scorer (20.8 per game) and rebounder (6.2). He shoots 83.1 percent from the free-throw line. Martin averaged 22.8 points and 8.7 rebounds as a senior at Ballard.

“Kelan’s level of play so far this season stacks up with anyone in both our conference and on a national level,” Butler Coach LaVall Jordan told the Indianapolis Star this month. “People see the scoring and the box score, but his impact on our success is much larger than those numbers. His game and his leadership continues to grow.”

Michigan guard Charles Matthews reacted after hitting a three-pointer against Michigan State during the first half on March 3 in New York. Julie Jacobson AP

Charles Matthews, Michigan: In his first year at Michigan (28-7) after transferring from Kentucky, the 6-foot-6 guard out of Chicago is averaging 12.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.6 assists while shooting 34.1 percent from three-point range for the Big Ten Conference Tournament champs. At UK, he averaged 1.7 points and 1.6 rebounds while playing 10.4 minutes per game primarily off the bench in his lone season for Coach John Calipari.

N.C. State’s Braxton Beverly, center, looked for a shot between Florida State’s Terance Mann, left, and Trent Forrest during the first half in Raleigh, N.C., on Feb. 25. Gerry Broome AP

Braxton Beverly, North Carolina State: The 6-foot freshman guard from Hazard is fourth on the team in scoring with 9.8 points and second in assists with 4.0 per game. He’s shooting 39.5 percent from three-point range and 81.6 percent from the free-throw line. Beverly left Perry County Central after his junior season with 2,558 career points (just 17 shy of the school record) and 743 assists, and he finished up at Hargrave Military Academy.

West Virginia guard James “Beetle” Bolden, right, was defended by TCU guard Alex Robinson during the second half on Feb. 12 in Morgantown, W.Va. Ray Thompson AP

James “Beetle” Bolden, West Virginia: The 6-foot sophomore guard out of Holmes is averaging 8.9 points and is shooting 41.6 from long range and 81.3 from the free-throw line. He scored 17 points, including five threes, in the Mountaineers’ loss to Kentucky in January. Bolden averaged 19.2 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game as a high school senior and finished his Holmes career with 2,024 points. He sat out the 2015-16 season at West Virginia after tearing the ACL in his right knee in September 2015.

Xavier guard Quentin Goodin went to the basket during the first half against St. John’s in the quarterfinals of the Big East Conference Tournament on March 8 in Madison Square Garden in New York. Mary Altaffer AP

Quentin Goodin, Xavier: The 6-foot-4 sophomore guard from Taylor County averages 8.8 points, 3.0 rebounds and 4.9 assists, and is an 81.2 percent free-throw shooter. He averaged 22.9 points and 7.9 rebounds as a high school senior.

Wright State’s Jaylon Hall, left, and Parker Ernsthausen celebrated their 74-57 win against Cleveland State in the Horizon League Tournament championship game in Detroit on March 6. Paul Sancya AP

Jaylon Hall, Wright State: The 6-5 freshman guard starred at Doss in high school. He has averaged 9.3 points and 2.6 rebounds for the Raiders, who won the Horizon League Tournament championship.

More ties to the Bluegrass

Kentucky: Dillon Pulliam, a 6-3 junior walk-on guard, starred at Harrison County and played one season at Transylvania. Brad Calipari, a six-foot sophomore walk-on guard started his high school career at Lexington Christian before finishing up at the MacDuffie School in Massachusetts. Freshman star PJ Washington is a Louisville native, but his family moved away from Kentucky shortly after his birth. He lists Dallas as his hometown and Findlay Prep of Las Vegas as his high school alma mater.

Lipscomb: Rob Marberry, a 6-foot-7 junior forward who transferred after one season at Western Kentucky, is averaging 16.0 points and 5.8 rebounds for the Bisons. Zach Flener, a 5-foot-10 freshman guard out of Murray, has played in seven games.

Murray State: 6-foot-1 freshman guard Zach Hopewell (Apollo) is the OVC Tournament champs’ only Kentuckian. He scored 11 points and had four assists in 12 games for the Racers this season.

Marshall: Christian Thieneman, a 6-5 sophomore forward who was on Louisville Trinity’s 2012 state championship team, has averaged 0.9 points and 1.3 rebounds in seven games for the Conference USA Tournament winners. Christian Villers, a 6-3 freshman guard from Ashland Blazer, has played in two games.

LIU Brooklyn: Craig Owens Jr., a 6-3 junior guard who played at Louisville Trinity, transferred to the Northeast Conference Tournament champs from West Los Angeles Community College, was eligible to play in January but hasn’t appeared in a game. He averaged 17.3 points per game over two seasons with the junior college.

Xavier: Kerem Kanter, a 6-foot-10 graduate transfer forward, is the brother of former Kentucky player Enes Kanter. He averages 10.4 points and 4.5 rebounds for the Musketeers. Leighton Schrand, a 6-foot-1 sophomore walk-on guard from Covington Holy Cross, has played in four games.

West Virginia: D’Angelo Hunter, a 6-foot-6 junior forward who played at Pleasure Ridge Park and previously attended Navarro College in Corsicana, Texas, has averaged 1.5 points and 0.9 rebounds in 17 games for the Mountaineers. He averaged 15.8 points and 4.8 rebounds at Navarro.

Alabama: Tyler Barnes, a 6-foot-8 freshman walk-on forward out of St. Xavier, has played in three games this season.

Clemson: Isaac Fields, a 6-foot-1 sophomore walk-on guard from South Oldham, is the brother of former Tigers guard Carson Fields. He has played in three games.

Dennis Varney: 859-231-3514, @ExCats