Northern Kentucky Coach John Brannen anticipated the David and Goliath storyline. How could he not?
The competing teams in one of Friday’s NCAA Tournament games here will be two-seed Kentucky, college basketball’s winningest program, and 15-seed NKU, which in its infancy in Division One became only the second program since 1970 to receive an NCAA Tournament bid in its first season of eligibility.
When asked if he bought into the David and Goliath storyline, Brannen told reporters at a Thursday news conference, “I know you guys would like us to. It’s not who we are.”
“It’s a good storyline: first time ever versus the greatest program in college basketball history.”
But that’s not how Brannen said his team perceived the game.
“It’s an opportunity for us to continue to play well, hopefully,” he said. “We’ll take it as that. When you’re in the eye of the storm, I don’t know that many coaches look at it like (David and Goliath).”
The other coach of a 15-seed team playing a two-seed here saw it exactly that way.
“Honestly, we really haven’t talked about it a lot,” Jacksonville State Coach Ray Harper said of his team’s supposed need of a slingshot against two-seed Louisville. “We talked about what we need to do. We don’t talk about wins and losses.”
Of course, 15-seeds have beaten two-seeds. In fact, it’s happened relatively often in recent NCAA tournaments: Middle Tennessee beat Michigan State 90-81 last year, Florida Gulf Coast beat Georgetown 78-65 in 2013, and in 2012 there were two 15 vs. 2 upsets (Lehigh over Duke 75-70 and Norfolk Sate over Missouri 86-84).
Overall, a 15-seed has beaten a two-seed eight times. By contrast, one-seeds had a record of 128-0 against 16-seeds going into this year’s tournament.
After reminding reporters of Middle Tennessee’s victory over Michigan State, UK guard Dominique Hawkins concluded, “So we definitely have to come out and play to the best of our abilities.”
Earlier this week, ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla suggested that the notion of Northern Kentucky beating UK was farfetched.
“The best thing about this matchup for Northern Kentucky is these players can tell their grandkids that they played Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament,” he said. “I think it’s more a cool thing for Northern Kentucky and less about Kentucky’s opening-round game. I don’t think this will provide a huge challenge. You don’t want to overlook a good solid team that’s played their way into the tournament. ... You’ve got to play somebody.”
NKU’s leading scorer, Drew McDonald, acknowledged the likelihood of lifelong memories.
“I think this whole experience in general will be something I’ll remember for the rest of my life,” he said. “Just growing up, watching the NCAA Tournament. It’s just a cool experience. Coming here and getting a chance to play in it. And then a big school like Kentucky, it’s just a great opportunity for us.”
UK players assured reporters that Northern Kentucky will not be overlooked.
“Anybody can be beat at any moment,” Malik Monk said. “So you just have to bring it.”
Bam Adebayo made anything less sound improbable.
“If you can’t get excited about this, I don’t know what you need to get excited about,” he said. “Everybody is going to play us like it’s their Super Bowl, so you can’t come out drowsy.”
Isaiah Briscoe said that a season of playing hyped-up opponents conditioned Kentucky to be adequately prepared.
Meanwhile, the precedents of 15-seeds beating two-seeds encouraged NKU’s Cole Murray.
“That’s something that you look at,” he said, “and you know what craziness happens in the tournament.”
As if to remove the possibility of pedigree intimidating NKU, Murray called Kentucky a “faceless opponent.”
Monk spoke of the weight of expectation as a heavily favored team. ESPN’s number crunchers pinpointed the likelihood of a Kentucky victory at 97 percent.
“For me, I feel pressure,” Monk said. “I mean, it’s not that much pressure, but I feel pressure.”
The word “respect” fell from the lips of several UK players and Coach John Calipari.
The Norse possess an equalizer: They made more three-point shots in Horizon League play (157) than any team.
Reminding reporters of his 30-plus years of head coaching experience, Calipari said, “You just go in with an open mind about every game.”
Kentucky vs. Northern Kentucky
What: NCAA Tournament South Regional round-of-64 game
Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis
When: About 9:30 p.m.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: No. 2 seed Kentucky 29-5, No. 15 seed Northern Kentucky 24-10
Series: Kentucky leads 1-0
Last meeting: Kentucky won 93-63 on Nov. 10, 2013, in Lexington.