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Let the Madness begin: UK faces Manhattan-Hampton winner in Louisville on Thursday

Kentucky, which earlier Sunday won the SEC Tournament title to improve to 34-0 on the season, will enter NCAA Tourney play as the overall No. 1 seed (UK Athletics Photo)

Kentucky, which earlier Sunday won the SEC Tournament title to improve to 34-0 on the season, will enter NCAA Tourney play as the overall No. 1 seed (UK Athletics Photo)


By Russ Brown
KyForward correspondent


LOUISVILLE–There were no surprises as far as undefeated Kentucky was concerned when the 2015 NCAA Tournament brackets were announced Sunday.

As expected, shortly after the Wildcats had dispatched Arkansas 78-63 in the SEC championship game Sunday afternoon to move to 34-0, they were awarded the No. 1 overall seed.

Louisville, meanwhile, was placed in the East Region, but will travel west to Seattle to meet UC Irvine in a second round matchup Friday.

Kentucky will begin its bid for their second national title in four years just as it did on the way to the 2012 crown, with a Midwest Regional assignment in the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, which amounts to a homecourt assignment for UK.

The other top four seeds in the Midwest are No. 2 Big 12 regular-season titlist Kansas (26-8), No. 3 ACC Tournament champion Notre Dame (29-5) and No. 4 Maryland of the Big 10.

“Kansas has talent, experience and is well-coached,” CBS analyst Grant Hill says. “They have a chance. Maryland beat Wisconsin and Kansas or Notre Dame would be a strong opponent for Kentucky. Without a doubt, the (NCAA selection) committee did Kentucky no favors. If they’re going to get to the Final Four, they’re going to have to beat good teams.”

In their opening game Thursday, the Cats will face either No. 16 Manhattan (19-13, 13-7 MAAC) or Hampton (16-17, 8-8 MEAC), which will tangle in a play-in game in Dayton, Ohio, Tuesday night. A victory would put UK against the winner of No. 8 Cincinnati (22-10) vs. No. 9 Purdue (21-12). The Midwest Regional semifinals and final will be in Cleveland on March 26-28.

UK, of course, is bidding to become the first undefeated national champion since Indiana in 1976, and it’s 34 down, six to go to 40-0.

“It’s really fun, just to know that you’re at the top of the mountain right now,” UK sophomore guard Aaron Harrison told reporters during the SEC Tournament. “You have to stay humble, of course, but just have fun. I think that’s exactly what we’re doing. I think we’re getting hungrier and hungrier. We want to go unbeaten, really. So we’re just fighting every day.”

Should Kentucky win its opening contest against Manhattan or Hampton, UK would face the winner of the No. 8 Cincinnati – No. 9 Purdue second round game.

The Wildcats earned their record 54th NCAA Tournament berth in program history. They own the No. 1 seed for the first time since 2012, when Kentucky defeated Western Kentucky and Iowa State in Louisville.

Unlike last season, Louisville coach Rick Pitino should have no complaints about where the No. 16/14 Cardinals (24-8) landed in the tournament bracket.

UofL will have to intially travel about 2,000 miles from home. Pitino had joked a couple of weeks ago that UofL would probably land in the Pacific Ocean. Close — the Cards will begin play in Seattle, but on the bright side they avoided two scenarios that upset Pitino last year:

A potential meeting with Kentucky in the Sweet 16 and a matchup against a former assistant. UK eliminated UofL in a Sweet 16 game last season in Indianapolis after the Cards had escaped an upset in their opener against Manhattan, coached by former aide Steve Masiello.

This time, Louisville was placed as the No. 4 seed in the East Regional, with its first-round opponent being No. 13 UC Irvine (21-12) in Seattle pod on Friday. If the Cards win that game they’ll meet either No. 5 Northern Iowa (30-3) or No. 12 Wyoming (25-9) on Sunday.

In a statement, Pitino, who is taking his 20th team into the tournament, said: “We had been to five straight conference championship games over the last five years. While we are disappointed that we did not advance in the ACC Tournament, the silver lining is that we had time to practice and work on a few different things. We feel that we’re playing our best basketball of the season and are looking forward to a great tournament.”

The East Regional semifinals will be played in the Carrier Dome in Syracuse March 27-29. The No. 1 seed in the regional is Villanova (32-2), the Big East regular season and tournament champ, while the No. 2 seed is ACC regular season champ Virginia (29-3) and No. 3 Oklahoma (22-10) of the Big 12.

Meanwhile, Murray State was left out of the 68-team field despite winning the Ohio Valley Conference regular season title with a 16-0 record and finishing 27-5 overall after losing to Belmont in the OVC Tournament championship game on a last-second shot. The Racers are expected to accept a bid to the NIT.

UC Irvine should provide little competition for Louisville. The Anteaters, coached by Russell Turner, will be making their first trip to the tournament since gaining Division I status in 1977 and split a pair of games against lowly Long Beach State, a team that UofL ripped 63-48 in December. UC Irvine lost to Long Beach 88-82 and beat its Big West Conference rival 56-55.

The Anteaters finished in a tie for second in the Big West at 11-5, then earned the league’s automatic bid by beating Hawai’i 67-58 in the conference tournament final.

“I’m really satisfied and excited for our program and the UCI community to have this experience,” Turner says. “Our players have all been recruited here to leave a mark on the community and we did that. Winning changes people, it can change schools and that’s what we hope to do and have a positive impact. I hope we can get over the idea that we can’t do it here, we obviously can. We forged a bond and became champions, and that’s fun.”

Senior forward Will Davis II was named the tournament’s MVP after recording double-doubles in each of his three tourney games while averaging 15.0 points and 11.7 rebounds, and shooting 66.7 percent from the field.

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Another member of the all-tourney team from UC Irvine was sophomore guard Luke Nelson, who averaged 15.0 points and recording 13 assists, five steals and hitting seven threes.

Louisville’s 70-60 loss to North Carolina in the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament didn’t appear to affect the seeding for the Cards, who had been projected as a No. 4 seed for several weeks. Not everyone agreed, though.

The Cards finished 7-5 in their last 12 games, with three of the losses coming after the dismissal of point guard Chris Jones, and CBS anlayst Doug Gottlieb wasn’t impressed.

“I think Louisville is overseeded,” Gottlieb said. “They’re living on their reputation.”

We’ll find out when the NCAA Tournament begins.

Russ Brown has covered University of Louisville athletics for 31 years, including 15 for The Courier-Journal in Louisville. He is senior writer/editor for the Louisville SportsReport, which he helped found, and also writes for Cardinalsports.com.

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