Kentucky faces new kid on the block in NCAA South opener
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) There’s a new kid on Kentucky’s block, one that shares its name – and often its shirts, too.
The second-seeded Wildcats (29-5) open the NCAA Tournament on Friday night by facing a newcomer to bluegrass tournament history. No. 15 Northern Kentucky (24-10) reached the tournament in its first season of eligibility, giving the school from Highland Heights – in the very northern tip of the state, right across the Ohio River from Cincinnati – a chance to test the best.
Welcome aboard, NKU . Get ready to face the eight-time national champs.
”It’s a good story line, our first time vs. the greatest program in college basketball history,” Northern Kentucky coach John Brannen said.
The season has already been a huge success on Northern Kentucky’s campus, where players don’t see nearly as many students wearing blue Kentucky shirts to class anymore. That’s progress indeed.
”A few years ago, I used to see a lot,” senior guard Cole Murray said. ”This year, it’s toned down a lot. It’s been nice to see.”
Although it’s a big moment for the Norse, they’re trying not to get caught up in it. And Kentucky is trying not to let it sneak up on it.
”If you expect in this tournament to try to bury somebody, it’s hard,” coach John Calipari said.
It’s the only matchup in the South Regional on Friday featuring two teams from the same state. They’ve played one other time, with the Wildcats racing away to a 93-63 win three years ago at Rupp Arena. This time, the Norse join Kentucky and Louisville representing the state at Indianapolis.
”They’re going to get a big taste of the NCAA Tournament, play against one of the premier, storied traditions in all of basketball,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said on Thursday. ”It’s going to be very exciting for them.”
Seventh-seeded Dayton (24-7) faces No. 10 Wichita State (30-4) in the earlier game in Indianapolis.
At Sacramento, No. 6 Cincinnati (29-5) plays No. 11 Kansas State – the winner of a First Four game – and No. 3 UCLA (29-4) plays No. 14 Kent State (22-13). At Greenville, No. 8 Arkansas (25-9) plays No. 9 Seton Hall (21-11) and top-seeded North Carolina (27-7) faces No. 16 Texas Southern (23-11).
Some things to watch in the South bracket on Friday:
LOST HIS TOUCH: North Carolina’s Justin Jackson – the Atlantic Coast Conference’s player of the year – has shot only 33 percent from the field in the last four games. He’s 7 of 31 from behind the arc over that span, and he’s hoping the slump ends fast.
”My confidence isn’t gone,” Jackson said Thursday. ”I mean, it was four games that I have not shot the ball well. And that’s all it is.”
HONORING NO. 5: The Dayton Flyers wear a prominent No. 5 on the front of their jerseys, and coach Archie Miller writes ”5” on the board in the locker room while going over pregame scouting reports – reminders of a teammate lost. Redshirt freshman center Steve McElvene died from a heart condition at his home in New Haven, Indiana, last May.
”Probably the worst moments that any of us have experienced together,” Miller said. ”For that (team) to be sitting here today after May 12 – in many cases, a lot of places wouldn’t pick themselves up.”
PUT-UP TIME: Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin has been outspoken about his unhappiness over the Bearcats’ No. 6 seed. He takes it as a slight of the American Athletic Conference, where Cincinnati finished second to SMU. The Bearcats get to face a K-State team that played Tuesday night in Dayton, beating Wake Forest by shooting a season-best 66 percent from the field.
HE’S NOT ALONE: Wichita State won its last 15 games – all but one of them by at least 15 points – and topped 80 points a school-record 23 times, but managed only a No. 10 seed that doesn’t sit very well with them and will be extra motivation against Dayton.
”I’m kind of used to the short end of the stick, if you will, on the seedings,” coach Gregg Marshall said.
AP Sports Writer Aaron Beard in Greenville contributed to this report.
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