It’s home sweet home again for Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament.
And the stay at Memorial Coliseum will include visits from a few old friends, the Cats learned on Monday night when the tournament field was revealed.
Kentucky, which earned a No. 4 seed and will face Belmont in the first round on Friday afternoon, will host the first two rounds at Memorial Coliseum with a chance potentially to play at Rupp Arena for the next two rounds.
There was plenty to be excited about for seniors like Makayla Epps and Evelyn Akhator, who get to play on their home floor(s) again.
“Just to end up in Lexington and get another chance, another opportunity to play in Memorial for one game guaranteed, it’s a really good feeling for me,” Epps said after the team watched the selection show at a new banquet facility near campus.
There also was plenty to talk about in the return of several players who left as part of the mass exodus in 2016 that included five player transfers, a graduate transfer, nearly two decimated recruiting classes and a parting of ways for all three assistant coaches.
Coming back to Lexington this week with their new teams are Kyvin Goodin-Rogers and Jaycee Coe with No. 12 seed Western Kentucky, which will face fifth-seeded Ohio State and former UK player Linnae Harper.
“They’re texting me right now,” Epps said of Harper and Goodin-Rogers, her former high school teammate on the Sweet Sixteen championship Marion County team. “They’re both really excited.
“I’ve seen Kyvin a couple times since her big move, but I haven’t seen Linnae. So real thrilled to see them both, but it’s all business whoever I’m going to have to see potentially.”
The winner of that Ohio State-Western Kentucky game will face the winner of Kentucky (21-10) and Belmont (27-5) in Sunday’s second round game at Memorial Coliseum.
Coach Matthew Mitchell said the Cats, who have advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the eighth straight time, can’t look ahead.
“What you have to do right now is get locked in, focused on Kentucky,” Mitchell said. “You have to put everything you can into Friday. I’m sure there will be a lot of talk about potential games, but if you don’t take care of Friday, you can’t worry about Sunday.”
Friday’s opponent, Belmont, went undefeated in the Ohio Valley Conference regular season and won the league tournament. The Bruins enter the NCAA Tournament having won 25 of their last 26 games. They haven’t lost a game since Dec. 14 at Minnesota.
“I don’t know much about them, just know they will be tough and ready and I can assure you they’ll have winning on their minds,” said Mitchell, who was heading back to the office to prep for the first round.
The four teams that advance out of the first two rounds of the Lexington Regional will meet up in Rupp Arena the weekend of March 24-27. The NCAA Final Four this year is scheduled for March 31 and April 2 at American Airlines Center in Dallas.
Kentucky is 19-13 all-time in the NCAA Tournament, including a 15-7 record under Mitchell. The best finishes for UK came in 2013, 2012, 2010 and 1982 when the Wildcats fell one win shy of the Final Four. Last season, UK fell in the Sweet 16 to Washington.
The Cats are one of eight Southeastern Conference teams to earn an NCAA Tournament bid on Monday night, including South Carolina, which was given a top seed in the Stockton Region. The Gamecocks join Connecticut, Baylor and the Irish as the tournament’s top seeds.
Other SEC teams in the field include Mississippi State, Missouri, Auburn, Texas A&M, Tennessee and LSU.
Jaida Roper, one of the two Kentucky guards injured in the SEC Tournament, was cleared to resume playing again, Mitchell confirmed after the selection show.
“We got Jaida back today, so that was great news,” he said of the freshman reserve, who suffered a head injury in the tournament semifinals.
UK is hopeful to get third-leading scorer Taylor Murray (whiplash/neck strain) back before the start of the NCAA Tournament on Friday.
“We are going to see where Taylor is tomorrow, so she is progressing,” he said. “We hope to get her back Wednesday or Thursday. I can’t guarantee that, but it looks like she is headed that direction.”
What: NCAA Tournament first-round games
Where: Memorial Coliseum
Matchups: Kentucky (21-10) vs. Belmont (27-5), noon, followed by Ohio State (26-6) vs. Western Kentucky (27-6)