Mark Story

The South Region: UK could face best player in country, then best team in country

Under Tony Bennett, Virginia has made it to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament only twice in five appearances before this year. The Cavaliers will enter the 2018 NCAA tourney as the No. 1 seed in the South Region and overall.
Under Tony Bennett, Virginia has made it to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament only twice in five appearances before this year. The Cavaliers will enter the 2018 NCAA tourney as the No. 1 seed in the South Region and overall. The Washington Post

An early look at the South Region — which includes No. 5 seed Kentucky:

For Kentucky to earn its fifth Final Four trip of the John Calipari era, it is possible the No. 5 seed Wildcats would have to beat 1.) the most talented player in the country; 2.) the top team in the country; 3.) a local foe with extra motivation.

Top player

If seeds hold, No. 5 seed Kentucky will face No. 4 Arizona in the round of 32. That means UK would face the gargantuan defensive challenge of slowing Deandre Ayton. The 7-foot-1, 250-pound Ayton is apt to be the No. 1 overall choice in the 2018 NBA Draft. On the season, the freshman big man averages 20.3 points, 11.5 rebounds and is shooting 61.6 percent from the floor.

As Arizona (27-7) rolled to victory in the Pac-12 Tournament, Ayton was dominant. He had 32 points and 14 rebounds against UCLA in the semifinals, then came back with 32 points and 18 boards against USC in the finals.

Deandre Ayton
Arizona star Deandre Ayton had 32 points and 14 rebounds against UCLA in the Pac-12 Tournament semifinals, then came back with 32 points and 18 boards versus USC in the finals. Chris Pietsch Associated Press

Top team

Should UK reach the round of 16, the Cats would likely face Virginia, the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tourney. Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers (31-2) are the ACC regular-season and tournament champions and are ranked No. 1 in the nation in both the human polls and in the advanced-metric Pomeroy Ratings.

Since Bennett brought his hard-nosed defensive and ball-control offensive style to the Cavaliers, Virginia has been an NCAA Tournament laggard, advancing to the second weekend only twice in five tries. By all accounts, this is the best team Bennett has had, but past NCAA failures make it hard to fully trust UVa.

Kyle Guy
Virginia guard Kyle Guy, No. 5, celebrated in the final seconds wind of the Cavaliers’ victory over North Carolina Saturday night in the ACC Tournament finals. Julie Jacobson Associated Press

Top rival(s)

If Kentucky could make it to the round of eight, it is possible the Wildcats could face A.) a foe that considers itself a rival of UK or B.) an ancient rival that has played the Wildcats more than any other team for the right to go to the Final Four.

A.) The No. 2 seed is Cincinnati (30-4), enjoying what is its best season since ex-Murray State head man Mick Cronin became the Bearcats’ head coach. UC backers have no love for UK — remember Calipari being booed at a Cincinnati Reds game when UK’s 2012 NCAA title team was honored at Great American Ballpark? — but the two teams have rarely played in recent years.

Since 1990, the only two meetings between UK and UC have both come in the NCAA Tournament round of 32. In 2005, Tubby Smith’s Wildcats bested Bob Huggins’ Bearcats 69-60 in Indianapolis.

Three seasons ago, Calipari and UK rocked Cronin and UC 64-51 in the KFC Yum Center.

All-time, UK leads its series with UC 28-10 but Cincinnati has not beaten Kentucky since 1939. The Wildcats have won the last 16 times the two have played.

For Cincinnati, a game against Kentucky with the Final Four riding on the outcome would be a holy war.

Mick Cronin
Cincinnati Coach Mick Cronin has the Bearcats entering the NCAA Tournament with the No. 2 seed in the South Region. Phelan M. Ebenhack AP

B.) The No. 3 seed is Tennessee (25-8). It’s possible the Wildcats and Volunteers — who have faced each other 225 times with UK leading the series 154-71 — could meet for the first time to determine a trip to the Final Four.

On Sunday, Kentucky (24-10) beat the Volunteers 77-72 in the finals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament to avenge two regular-season losses to Rick Barnes’ Vols.

Admiral Schofield
Tennessee’s Admiral Schofield (5) had 22 points in UT’s 77-72 loss to Kentucky on Sunday in the Southeastern Conference Tournament finals. It’s possible Schofield and UT could face the Wildcats again in the finals of the NCAA Tournament South Region. Jeff Roberson Associated Press

A UK-UT showdown for the Final Four could inflame the hoops rivalry between the schools back to the level of the mid-1970s when Tennessee had Ernie Grunfeld and Bernard King and was a genuine challenger to Kentucky for SEC supremacy.

The first-round foe

Of course, for any of the above scenarios to occur, Kentucky has to vanquish No. 12 seed Davidson (21-11) first.

The Davidson edition of Wildcats (21-11) entered the Atlantic 10 Tournament knowing they had to win it to earn Coach Bob McKillop’s ninth trip to the NCAA Tournament.

Davidson did just that, besting No. 2 seed St. Bonaventure 82-70 in the semifinals, then scoring the final four points to stun top-seed Rhode Island 58-57 in the finals.

Two standout players lead Davidson. Peyton Aldridge, a 6-foot-8, 225-pound senior from Leavittsburg, Ohio, leads the Wildcats in scoring (21.5 ppg) and rebounding (7.8). He was named co-Atlantic 10 Conference Player of the Year and was Most Outstanding Player in the A-10 tourney.

Bob McKillop
Davidson Coach Bob McKillop has now led the Wildcats to the NCAA Tournament nine times. In 2008, McKillop and Davidson, whose star player was Stephen Curry, reached the Elite Eight before falling to eventual NCAA champion Kansas by two points. Alex Brandon Associated Press

Kellan Grady, a 6-5, 185-pound freshman from Boston, averages 18 points per game and is hitting 50.8 percent of his shots. He scored the final four points of the A-10 finals on a pair of free throws and a running leaner that put his team into the NCAA tourney.

McKillop and Davidson are no strangers to NCAA Tournament success. In 2008, behind the stellar performances of a player whose name you may recognize — Stephen Curry — Davidson reached the Elite Eight before falling to eventual national champion Kansas by two points, 59-57.

UK and Davidson have met in the NCAA Tournament round of 64 once before. In 1986, Kenny Walker had 20 points and 10 rebounds to lead Kentucky over Davidson 75-55.

Final Four coaches

The are five coaches in the South Region who have taken teams to the Final Four — but only one has done so at his current school.

Tennessee Coach Rick Barnes led Texas to the 2003 Final Four. Miami Coach Jim Larranaga led George Mason to the 2006 national semifinals. Kansas State’s Bruce Weber coached Illinois to the 2005 Final Four. Texas head man Shaka Smart took VCU from the First Four to the Final Four in 2011.

John Calipari pleading look
Kentucky Coach John Calipari has led the Wildcats to the Final Four four times - 2011, 2012, 2014 and 2015. The 2012 Wildcats won the national title. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

John Calipari is the one coach in the region who has taken his current team to the Final Four. UK went to the national semifinals in 2011, ’12, ’14 and ’15 under Calipari, winning it all in 2012.

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