Louisville, KY (SportsNetwork.com) - The top team in the country gets its NCAA Tournament underway on Thursday evening, as the undefeated Kentucky Wildcats take on the Hampton Pirates in Midwest Regional action at the KFC Yum! Center.
The winner of this game will take on either Cincinnati or Purdue in the third round on Saturday.
Kentucky picked up the No. 1 overall seed in this event as John Calipari's Wildcats have run the table thus far, sporting a perfect 34-0 record to this point, a school record. It marks the 12th time in school history that UK has earned a No. 1 seed in its rich tournament history. Kentucky is making its national-best 54th appearance in this tournament. The Wildcats hold a 118-48 all-time record and have won eight NCAA titles, including their last in 2012.
Edward Joyner Jr.'s Pirates ran the table in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Tournament to earn the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, a surprise to say the least for a team that entered the postseason with a losing record. Hampton rectified that though on Tuesday, knocking off Manhattan, 74-64, in Dayton to advance to the second round. It was Hampton's fifth straight victory and second-ever tournament win (2-4), pushing the 16-seed to an even 17-17 on the season.
This is the first-ever meeting between these two teams on the hardwood.
Senior guard Quinton Chievous recorded a double-double with 15 points and 13 rebounds, leading the Pirates to their fifth straight victory, a 10-point decision over Manhattan on Tuesday in Dayton. Junior guard Reginald Johnson matched Chievous' scoring output with 15 points of his own, while junior Brian Darden checked in with 13. Fellow junior Deron Powers made a sizable contribution as well, tallying eight points, while doling out seven assists for Hampton, which shot .491 from the field and had great ball movement, amassing 20 assists on the team's 26 field goals.
The Pirates' efficiency against Manhattan is not the norm this year. Hampton entered the NCAA Tournament averaging 67.2 ppg, but shooting a mere .408 from the field. Making matters worse against Kentucky, is the fact that leading scorer Dwight Meikle and Chievous are both nursing ankle injuries. Meikle, who nets 13.0 ppg, will not suit up for this game, while Chievous (10.1 ppg coming into the tournament) is listed as questionable. Johnson (11.9 ppg), Powers (10.5 ppg) and Darden (9.7 ppg) may need to assume even bigger roles offensively.
Even at full strength, Hampton would be fighting an uphill battle against Kentucky. The Wildcats have run over opponents this season with stifling defensive play. They lead the nation in scoring margin (+20.9) and field-goal percentage defense (.355), while ranking second in blocked shots (234) and third in scoring defense (54.0 ppg).
Calipari's squad is anchored by a pair of big men in junior Willie Cauley- Stein and freshman Karl-Anthony Towns. Both are All-SEC First-Team members, Cauley-Stein picked up some All-America accolades, averaging 9.3 points and 6.4 rebounds per game. Towns was tabbed the National Freshman of the Year, with 9.7 points and 6.7 rebounds per outing. The two have combined for 136 blocked shots. Guards Aaron Harrison (11.3 ppg) and Devin Booker (10.5 ppg) are perfect complements with their perimeter games. The two have combined for 107 of the team's 185 3-pointers to date.