UK Men's Basketball

Mark Story: March Madness might yield March sadness for (state of) Kentucky in 2016

Morehead State’s Corban Collins shot a three-pointer against Eastern Kentucky’s Nick Mayo during their Ohio Valley Conference game Feb. 11 in Morehead.
Morehead State’s Corban Collins shot a three-pointer against Eastern Kentucky’s Nick Mayo during their Ohio Valley Conference game Feb. 11 in Morehead. Herald-Leader

Men’s college basketball fans in the state of Kentucky have been living through a modern golden age.

Since 2010, every one of Kentucky’s eligible NCAA Division I men’s basketball programs — Eastern Kentucky, Kentucky, Louisville, Morehead State, Murray State and Western Kentucky — have made at least one appearance in an NCAA tourney.

Five of those programs — all but EKU — have won in the Dance since 2010.

During this time, UK and U of L have combined to win two national championships (2012 for UK, 2013 for U of L) and play in six Final Fours.

Murray State has two NCAA tourney wins (over Vanderbilt in 2010 and Colorado State in 2012), and Morehead State claimed the greatest victory in its hoops history when Kenneth Faried and Co. stunned U of L in the 2011 round of 64.

WKU beat Mississippi Valley State in the 2012 First Four. Even EKU, which has never won a men’s NCAA tourney contest, scared the bejeebers out of Kansas in 2014 before falling.

In Kentucky, these past six NCAA tournaments have been a magic carpet ride.

That could be on the verge of crash-landing with the 2016 NCAA Tournament.

As it looks now, our state seems certain to have only one team — the Kentucky Wildcats — in the men’s Big Dance.

You have to go back 25 NCAA Tournaments to find the last time the state of Kentucky sent only one team to a men’s NCAA tourney. In 1991, Murray State was the commonwealth’s sole representative (amazingly, the last time our state had no teams in the men’s NCAA Tournament was 1963).

This year, we already know three of our state’s seven Division I programs will not play in the 2016 NCAA tourney. Eastern Kentucky (15-16, 6-10 OVC) failed to qualify for the OVC Tournament.

Northern Kentucky (9-20, 5-13 Horizon League) is in the final season of its four-year transition after moving up from Division II. In 2016-17, the Norse will be eligible to compete for a spot in the Division I NCAA tourney for the first time.

Louisville (22-7, 11-5 ACC), a team that had a legitimate chance to make the Final Four, will not be dancing at all after the school’s administration self-imposed a postseason ban as a result of the “using strippers/escorts in recruiting” scandal that has rocked Rick Pitino’s program.

Of our state’s remaining four teams, UK (21-8, 11-5) should be in the NCAAs regardless of how the Wildcats fare in their final two regular-season games (at Florida and against LSU in Rupp Arena) and in the SEC Tournament.

The outstanding question for Kentucky is whether the Cats can earn a high enough seed to be placed in the South Region — where the rounds of 16 and eight will be played in Louisville’s KFC Yum Center.

Morehead State (19-10, 11-5 OVC) would seem the best bet to give our state a second men’s NCAA tourney team.

Entering a wide-open OVC Tournament, Coach Sean Woods’ third-seeded Eagles are riding a six-game winning streak. MSU owes its late-season run to defense and balance.

Over its past four games, Morehead State held each of its foes below 39 percent field-goal shooting. Led by LSU transfer Corban Collins, Morehead has seven players averaging 6.2 to 11.8 points.

By its exacting standards, Murray State (16-13, 10-6 OVC) has had a mediocre season in Matt McMahon’s first year replacing Steve Prohm as Racers head coach.

Murray is a seven seed in the OVC tourney for the first time since 1987. The Racers will have to win four games, including beating Morehead in the quarterfinals, to claim the conference tournament crown.

With two regular-season games to go, Western Kentucky (14-15, 6-10 Conference USA) has endured a slog.

Though getting a strong sophomore season from ex-Perry Central star Justin Johnson (15.4 ppg, 7.6 rpg), the Hilltoppers have not been a good team outside of Diddle Arena (4-11). Given that the C-USA Tournament will be played in Birmingham, Ala., that does not bode well for WKU’s postseason aspirations.

However, for two reasons, you cannot totally write off Western.

1.) In his first two seasons as Western Kentucky head man, Ray Harper led the Toppers to surprise Sun Belt Conference Tournament titles as a seven seed (2011-12) and a six seed (2012-13).

2.) WKU has played C-USA favorite UAB tough twice, winning 69-62 in Bowling Green and losing 71-67 in Birmingham.

So far in the 21st century, the state of Kentucky has sent three or more teams to the men’s NCAA tourney a robust 10 times.

In what might be the end — or just a pause — in our state’s modern hoops golden age, upsets will be needed to get even two Kentucky teams into 2016’s March Madness.

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