Kentucky is about as blue blood as you can get in the sport of college basketball and March Madness seems to be a special time of the year around the Bluegrass State. While the Wildcats have eight banners hanging up at Rupp Arena and will be looking for their 18th Final Four this year, their first round opponents enter Friday’s matchup a little bit more wide-eyed for the experience.
That’s because the Norse — one of the best team names in the bracket without question — are in their first NCAA Tournament in the school’s first year of eligibility. Though the program is young, they’re aiming high and are bound to be fired up to face big brother from right down the road.
There are few more exciting times around the Commonwealth than right now and things might be even more amped with two of the state’s teams are set to square off right away in the opening round. Given the style both teams play, this should be a fun one even if one side has a decided talent advantage.
South Region: No. 15 Northern Kentucky (24-10) vs. No. 2. Kentucky (29-5)
When: 9:40 p.m. ET (Friday)
Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis, IN
Line: Kentucky -19
Keys for Northern Kentucky
While it may have taken decades for programs like Northwestern, Northern Kentucky finds itself 1-for-1 when it comes to the NCAA Tournament after running through the Horizon League tourney last week to secure a bid. The Norse are a very good three-point shooting team and will need that to continue so they don’t get caught up in the length their opponent brings to the table. Three players are double-digit scorers, led by double-double machine Drew McDonald, and all three will need career games to keep this one close and threaten to pull the upset. It probably would help quite a bit if the freshmen on the opposite bench feel a little pressure and have a sub-par shooting night too.
Keys for Kentucky
We’ve seen our share of No. 2 seeds getting upset in recent years but it’s safe to say that there’s enough future NBA talent on John Calipari’s roster that all the Wildcats have to do is just show up in order to win the game. Freshmen Malik Monk has had a sensational season and could be one of the stars of March after he’s helped guide the team to 11-straight wins and the regular season and tournament SEC titles. UK is no pushover when it comes to playing tight defense and we could see that emphasized by the coaching staff in this game as they look beyond the first weekend.
This game pits two of the hotter teams in the country against each other as both have been near unstoppable since mid-February. Horizon League teams have pulled off some big upsets in the past but this one would be extra special were it to come about given the in-state dynamics at play and what’s on the line for the talented No. 2 seed. Still, it’s going to be hard for anybody to slow down the dynamic backcourt the Wildcats trot out and the Norse tend to struggle with some of the little things — like free throw shooting and rebounding — that you need if you want to pull off a shocker. This one might be interesting into the second half but ultimately Kentucky will pull away for another smooth first round victory.
Prediction: Kentucky 89, Northern Kentucky 64
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.
(Top photo courtesy of www.nkunorse.com)