NCAA tourney field will have a Kentucky flavor


By Jamie Vaught - Contributing Columnist



There are lots of flavor from the state of Kentucky in the Big Dance other than UK and U of L.

As you know, Northern Kentucky, which was just granted full NCAA Division I status last August, has earned its first NCAA Division I tourney berth for winning the Horizon League Tournament in Detroit last week. And the No. 15 seed Norse (24-10) will face No. 2 seed Kentucky in the South Region Friday night in Indy.

NKU is guided by John Brannen, a former Newport Central Catholic High School standout who played for former UK assistant Billy Donovan at Marshall after transferring from Morehead State. The 6-8 Brannen was a star player during the mid-1990s who led the Southern Conference in scoring and was the runner-up for the league’s player of the year award.

While at Marshall, Brannen excelled in the classroom, graduating with honors with a degree in business administration. He was a Rhodes Scholarship finalist in the state of West Virginia and received postgraduate scholarships from both the NCAA and conference.

The 43-year-old Brannen also served as assistant at several schools, including a brief stint as Alabama’s interim coach during the NIT in 2015 after his boss, Anthony Grant, was dismissed. Before coming to Alabama where he served for six years, he was an assistant at Eastern Kentucky, among other places.

One of his current players is 6-5, 230-pound forward Carson Williams, a Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball in 2016 who has seen significant action for the Norse this season as a freshman. At Owen County High School last year, he averaged 26.7 points and 10.8 rebounds.

Another active Kentuckian on NKU’s roster is 6-1 freshman guard Mason Faulkner, a Mr. Basketball finalist in Kentucky last year. He was the state’s leading scorer with a 35.9-point average at Caverna High School.

A couple of other Kentuckians did well in last week’s Horizon League tournament. NKU’s leading scorer Drew McDonald, a 6-7 sophomore from Newport Central Catholic, was chosen to the league’s All-Tournament team. Lavone Holland II, a 6-1 junior from Louisville Ballard High, was selected the tourney’s MVP.

Facing No. 2 seed Louisville in the Midwest Region on Friday in Indy is No. 15 seed Jacksonville State, located in Alabama. The first-year coach of the Jacksonville State squad is Ray Harper, the former WKU mentor. Before coming to Jacksonville, his career record was 431-127 in 17 years as a head coach, including four national titles – two at the NCAA Division II level (Kentucky Wesleyan) and two in NAIA (Oklahoma City).

While covering the entire 2012 NCAA tournament, I remember watching his Western Kentucky club battle against the eventual national champion Wildcats in Louisville. His No. 16 seed Hilltoppers dropped 81-66 to Kentucky. His WKU squad also played in the 2013 Big Dance, losing to Kansas in the first game.

Harper is a native of tiny Bremen in western Kentucky.

Harper also has a Kentuckian on his roster. Tyrik Edwards, an all-state performer from Christian County High School, is seeing some action as a 5-10 freshman guard.

Another coach with strong Kentucky connections is Troy head coach Phil Cunningham, who is in fourth season at the school. The No. 15 seed Trojans are making its second-ever NCAA tourney appearance after a poor 9-22 campaign last season. They face No. 2 seed Duke in the East Region on Friday in Greenville, S.C.

Cunningham, a native of Campbellsville, also served as an assistant at Mississippi State for 12 years. He started his coaching career in 1990 as an assistant to his father, Lou Cunningham, at Campbellsville University.

His football counterpart at Troy, by the way, is coach Neal Brown, a former UK player and assistant coach.

Don’t forget No. 4 seed Butler of the Big East has third-year head coach Chris Holtmann, a Nicholasville native who led Jessamine County High to Sweet Sixteen nearly 30 years ago. The Bulldogs also featured all-conference performer Kelan Martin, a 6-7 junior from Louisville Ballard High.

And remember former Murray State coach Steve Prohm? He is now leading Iowa State, which is No. 5 seed in the Midwest Region. One of his staff members is ex-UK assistant David Hobbs, who worked under Tubby Smith.

Even though third-year coach (and former UK star) Scott Padgett and his Samford team are not in the NCAA tournament, they will be seeing postseason action, participating in the CollegeInsider.com tournament. The CIT will be the Bulldogs’ first postseason appearance since the 2000 NCAA tournament.

Going into Tuesday night’s action against its first-round opponent (Canisius), Samford’s is 19-15, its first winning mark in 11 years. Also, former Lexington Henry Clay High standout Christen Cunningham established the school’s single-season and career records in assists at the Birmingham, Ala., school.

Of course, there are several other Kentuckians in the postseason tournaments. It certainly makes the March Madness in the Commonwealth even more thrilling.

Don’t you agree?

* * *

ESPN broadcaster Dick Vitale, who called Kentucky’s win over Arkansas in the SEC Tournament championship game, said Kentucky is in a very tough bracket.

Wrote Vitale in a tweet Sunday night, “Toughest 2 regions to me are #1 South #2 East. Wow! UNC, UK & UCLA in the same region? Enough said. Ouch!”

Vitale also predicts North Carolina will win the Big Dance.

Mike DeCourcy of the Sporting News agrees that UK is in a rough region, too, pointing out that the Cats may have to battle against No. 10 seed Wichita State (30-4), UCLA and North Carolina in consecutive matchups if they roll by Northern Kentucky.

As far as tradition goes, South Region is loaded with national championships. The top 3 seeds – North Carolina, Kentucky and UCLA – have won a total of 24 national titles. Even No. 4 seed Butler has been in the national title game twice in recent years.

As for my South Region picks, if you want me to take off my Kentucky blue-colored glasses, North Carolina is probably my choice as regional’s representative to the Final Four. The Wildcats, though, have the talent to attend the 2017 Final Four party but they must play tough defense to survive.

The Tar Heels are No. 3 nationally, according to Pomeroy’s Ratings, just ahead of No. 4 Kentucky.

Kentucky coach John Calipari has said playing defense is what it takes to win the games.

“I would definitely agree with that,” said UK senior Dominique Hawkins, who was named to the SEC All-Tournament team Sunday along with teammates De’Aaron Fox (SEC tourney MVP) and Bam Adebayo. “The way we’ve been playing defense is the reason we’ve been winning. If we continue to do that, we’ll definitely advance.”

However, I’m personally kind of concerned about the possible Kentucky-Wichita State showdown on Sunday. Even though the Shockers no longer have All-Americans Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet, they are red-hot, just like UK. WSU, which is a six-point favorite over No. 7 seed Dayton Friday night, has won 15 games in a row. The Shockers, arguably, should have been seeded around No. 6, not No. 10. Even the Pomeroy’s Ratings put WSU at No. 8 overall.

Earlier in the season, Wichita State dominated a weak LSU team 82-47 while dropping to Louisville 62-52 and Michigan State 77-72, all at Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas.

“I think we can win several games in the NCAA tournament,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall was quoted as saying in last week’s USA Today Sports Weekly and that was before the Selection Sunday. Marshall said on Sunday he wasn’t too thrilled with his club’s No. 10 seed.

And emotionally-charged Wichita State will be seeking a revenge against the Wildcats if it beats the Flyers. The Shockers, who went to the Final Four in 2013, haven’t forgotten their 2014 NCAA tourney upset loss to No. 8 seed Kentucky in a classic showdown in St. Louis. The loss dashed then-No. 1 seed WSU’s Final Four hopes, finishing its near-perfect campaign with a 35-1 worksheet.

Said UK senior Derek Willis of WSU, “Their coach is still there. They had that great coach. He’s a really smart guy, just really liked the way he ran his team, and his players that year were really talented as well. They had a great season and, like I said, it just comes down to the point of who wants it more. You get in those dogfights and whoever comes out on top comes out on top.”

Since 2013, Marshall’s teams have posted a 9-4 mark in the NCAA tournament.

Nevertheless, it should be an entertaining matchup in Round 32 if UK and WSU don’t look ahead past Northern Kentucky and Dayton, respectively.

Anyhow, if the Cats get past the Shockers or the Flyers, and possibly UCLA in Sweet Sixteen, I look for another classic UK-UNC rematch in the regional finals. That should be a dandy one, just like the last meeting between both schools in Las Vegas back in December when the Cats won 103-100 on Malik Monk’s stunning 47-point performance.

And it sure would be awfully interesting to see if Monk can repeat his spectacular feat against the Tar Heels.

* * *

What about the 18th-ranked Kentucky women in the NCAA Tournament?

Like the past three years, the Wildcats (21-10) will be staying home for the next four games at Memorial Coliseum (this weekend) and Rupp Arena (following weekend) until the Final Four in Dallas if they keep winning.

No. 4 seed Kentucky will meet 13th-seeded Belmont in the first round on Friday afternoon (noon on ESPN2) in the Lexington Region. The other Friday matchup at Memorial Coliseum has No. 5 seed Ohio State and No. 12 seed Western Kentucky.

“I think the kids are excited about the prospect of being in the Lexington Region,” said UK coach Matthew Mitchell. “We just met after the bracket was announced and the only thing that really matters for us is Friday and that’s the way you’ve got to go into it and look at it. We’ve got to get prepared because if you don’t get it done Friday, you certainly won’t get it done in Rupp Arena. You’ve got to take care of Friday and that’s what we’re worried about right now.”

Belmont (27-5) received an automatic bid in the tourney after winning the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament. The Bruins, who use a 10-woman playing rotation, went 16-0 in conference play this season, scoring 77.8 points per game and limiting opponents to just 65.2 points per game. Belmont is outrebounding teams by 11.8 rebounds per game.

Interestingly, two former UK players – Linnae Harper and Kyvin Goodin-Rogers — will be at Memorial Coliseum this weekend. Harper, a junior, is averaging 8.5 points and 5.0 rebounds for Ohio State, while Goodin-Rogers averages 8.0 points and nearly 4 rebounds for WKU.

“They’re texting me right now,” commented Kentucky star Makayla Epps of her former teammates after the Selection Monday Show. “They’re both really excited. I’ve seen Kyvin a couple times since her big move, but I haven’t seen Linnae. So real thrilled to see them both, but it’s all business whoever I’m going to have to see potentially.”

In this year’s NCAA tournament, UK is one of eight SEC teams. South Carolina, which earned an automatic bid to the tourney after capturing the conference tournament, is a No. 1 seed in the Stockton Regional. Mississippi State, Missouri, Auburn, Texas A&M, Tennessee and LSU are also going to the Big Dance.

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By Jamie Vaught

Contributing Columnist

Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle.com magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at [email protected]

Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle.com magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at [email protected]

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