Mark Story

The state of Kentucky is on the cusp of making major March Madness history

Hold tight, the commonwealth of Kentucky stands on the verge of making major March Madness history in the 2019 men’s NCAA basketball tournament.

With the victories by Ja Morant and Murray State in the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament and Drew McDonald and Northern Kentucky in the Horizon League Tournament, teams from Kentucky have already claimed two automatic bids to the NCAA tourney.

Regardless of how No. 4 Kentucky (26-5) fares in this week’s SEC Tournament in Nashville or how Louisville (19-12) performs in the ACC Tournament in Charlotte, both teams are considered locks to make the NCAA field of 68 as at-large selections.

Since the NCAA tourney began in 1939, the commonwealth has sent four teams to the Big Dance only twice before — 1995 and 2012.

But an unprecedented level of NCAA attainment is still possible for the Bluegrass State.

Never has Kentucky had five teams make the NCAA Tournament.

This week, in Frisco, Texas, Rick Stansbury and the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers are now playing to make state college basketball history.

If Western can win the Conference USA Tournament, that would likely be the fifth in-state team qualified for the 2019 NCAA tourney. The No. 2 seed, WKU (18-13) opens play in the C-USA tourney Thursday at around 9:30 p.m. (EDT) against the winner of Wednesday’s late-evening contest between No. 7 seed Florida International (19-12) and No. 10 North Texas (20-11).

Read on, and we’ll evaluate Western’s chances of turning the 2019 NCAA Tournament into a “high five” for the state of Kentucky.

Rick Stansbury hands up
If Western Kentucky Coach Rick Stansbury can lead the Hilltoppers to the Conference USA Tournament title this week, the commonwealth of Kentucky will likely have an unprecedented five teams in the 2019 NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Austin Anthony Associated Press

Four twice before

In 2012, the most recent time the state of Kentucky sent four teams to the NCAA Tournament, it was a banner March Madness for the Bluegrass State.

Playing before President Obama and his guest British Prime Minister David Cameron, Western Kentucky rallied from 16 down in the final 5:06 to edge Mississippi Valley State 59-58 in the NCAA Tournament First Four at the University of Dayton.

In the inaugural NCAA Tournament action ever at the KFC Yum Center in Louisville, No. 6 seed Murray State defeated No. 11 Colorado State 58-41 in the West Region round of 64 before falling to No. 3 Marquette 62-53 in the round of 32.

Meanwhile, South Region No. 1 seed Kentucky launched its drive to the 2012 NCAA championship by defeating Western Kentucky 81-66 at the Yum Center.

In the national semifinals, UK defeated Louisville 69-61 in the first-ever Final Four meeting between the in-state rivals.

Anthony Davis vs U of L 2012 Final Four
Kentucky star Anthony Davis (23) shot over Louisville’s Gorgui Dieng (10) in UK’s 69-61 victory over U of L in the 2012 Final Four. Herald-Leader

By the end of the 2012 NCAA Tournament, one in-state team (UK) was national champion, two (UK and U of L) were Final Four participants, three (UK, Murray State and WKU) had played tourney games inside state lines and all four had won at least one Big Dance game.

From a state perspective, 2012 stands as the greatest NCAA Tournament in the commonwealth’s sports history.

(Louisville was subsequently ordered by the NCAA to vacate its 2012 Final Four appearance due to rules infractions).

The only other time the state of Kentucky put four teams into the NCAA tourney was not as momentous.

In 1995, top-seed Kentucky reached the Southeast Region finals but was upset 74-61 by No. 2 seed North Carolina.

No. 8 seed Western Kentucky beat No. 9 Michigan 82-76 in overtime in the Midwest Region but lost to No. 1 seed Kansas, 75-70, in the round of 32.

Meanwhile, No. 11 seed Louisville was routed 77-56 by No. 6 Memphis in the Midwest Region round of 64, while No. 15 seed Murray State fell to UNC 80-70 in the Southeast Region round of 64.

Can WKU make it five?

In 2018-19, Western Kentucky has been a true Jekyll/Hyde, one of the nation’s more perplexing teams.

The Hilltoppers (18-13, 11-7 C-USA) have wins over power-conference foes West Virginia, Arkansas (on the road) and Wisconsin, plus a victory over the St. Mary’s team that upset No. 1 Gonzaga in Tuesday night’s West Coast Conference Tournament finals.

Conversely, WKU has also lost to Troy (12-18), Indiana State (15-16) and Missouri State (16-16).

Conference USA has been one of the most balanced leagues in the country. Behind regular-season champion Old Dominion (23-8, 13-5), 11 of the league’s other 13 teams all finished conference play with records between 11-7 and 8-10.

That’s why the C-USA Tournament shapes up as a scramble.

ODU is the top seed, but both the kenpom ratings and the NCAA’s new NET rankings favor Southern Mississippi (19-11). Yahoo Sports college basketball columnist Pat Forde picked defending C-USA Tournament champion Marshall (18-13) to cut down the nets.

Taveion Hollingsworth, a sophomore from Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, is Western Kentucky’s second-leading scorer (14.2 points per game) this season. Austin Anthony AP

Yet, for all its inconsistency, Western Kentucky may have the most talented starting five in C-USA with standout freshman big man Charles Bassey (15 ppg, 9.9 rpg) surrounded by four capable guards led by 2017 Kentucky Mr. Basketball Taveion Hollingsworth (14.2 ppg), the ex-Paul Laurence Dunbar star.

So buckle up, the commonwealth of Kentucky is three WKU victories from turning the 2019 NCAA Tournament into an unprecedented Bluegrass State bounty.


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Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a Herald-Leader sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.