Northern Kentucky-Kentucky Preview (Mar 17, 2017)

INDIANAPOLIS — To say the least, South Regional No. 2 seed and Southeastern Conference champion Kentucky is in its happy place.

The Wildcats (29-5), who have an impressive 11-game winning streak entering Friday night’s opening-round game against No. 15 seed Northern Kentucky (24-10) in Bankers Life Fieldhouse, like playing in Indianapolis and certainly like their current performance, including winning the SEC tournament on Sunday, beating Arkansas in the finale.

Kentucky has won the NCAA Tournament eight times, has advanced to the Final Four 17 times and is making its 56th trip to the NCAA tourney.

Led by freshmen Malik Monk (20.5 points), De’Aaron Fox (16.1) and Edrice Adebayo (13.2), Kentucky also features the nation’s ninth-best defense.

All of these facts make coach John Calipari a happy man.

“I know our little corner of the world is Northern Kentucky, who has had a terrific year,” Calipari said. “I love playing in Indy. The greatest thing is our fans can get there, and they’ve probably already scooped up a ton of tickets. I kind of like it.”

Senior forward Derek Willis likes the way Kentucky is playing heading into the NCAA tournament.

“I think we have been playing our best basketball right now,” Willis said. “I think our whole team is collectively starting to come together. I think we are starting to hit an incline, starting to peak at the right moment. We can take it as far as we want to go.”

Northern Kentucky, which won the Horizon League tournament in its first year of eligibility to qualify for the NCAA tournament, realizes the task it faces but is excited.

Drew McDonald (16.9 points and 7.6 rebounds), Lavone Holland II (12.9 points and 4.9 assists) and Carson Williams (10.4 points and 5.8 rebounds) helped the Norse post their first winning season since 2011-2012 and posted the program’s most victories since 2008.

Northern Kentucky has won six straight and 10 of 11, beating Wright State, Youngstown State and Milwaukee to win the conference tournament and secure the NCAA bid.

The Norse led the Horizon League in 3-pointers made per game with 8.7.

“We will be prepared to compete,” second-year Norse coach John Brannen said of playing Kentucky.

For senior Cole Murray, who is from Delphi, Ind., it doesn’t get much better than having an opportunity to face the eight-time NCAA champions.

“Our mindset is going to be the same as going in against any other team we have played this year,” Murray said. “We will do the same things we have done all year to be successful. Our coaches will give us a great game plan against Kentucky, and we will do the best we can to execute it and go show what we’ve got.”

The winner of the Kentucky-Northern Kentucky game will advance to Sunday’s second round and will play the winner of No. 7 seed Dayton and No. 10 seed Wichita State.