As the overall No. 1 seed on way to a national championship three years ago, Kentucky started near home in the Bluegrass State and beat Kansas in the title game.
With the Wildcats (34-0) now trying to become the first undefeated national champion since Indiana in 1976, there is already some similarity to 2012 — and the potential of another NCAA Tournament game against the Jayhawks.
Kentucky plays its Midwest Region first-round game Thursday in Louisville, Kentucky, where the Wildcats also started their 2012 championship run. The No. 2 seed in the region is Kansas, the Big 12 regular-season champion 11 years in a row and a team the Wildcats overwhelmed early this season.
Wildcats coach John Calipari said repeatedly it’s “pretty crazy” for his team — or any team — to be still be undefeated. Now the team that hasn’t lost can’t blow a single game if it wants a ninth national title.
“Regardless if we were perfect or not, it’s still we’re only guaranteed one game,” said Willie Cauley-Stein, the big man who returned to the Wildcats after they lost to UConn in last year’s national title game when he was a freshman. “It’s really the slate is clean. Whether we’re 34-0 or got five losses, we still from here on out, you’re 0-0.”
Kentucky plays its opener against a No. 16 seed; Manhattan and Hampton get the honor after playing a First Four game Tuesday night in Dayton, Ohio. There has never been a No. 16 seed win in the tournament, though Hampton was a No. 15 seed when the Pirates upset No. 2 seed Iowa State in a first-round game in 2001.
Kansas (26-8), which won its latest Big 12 regular-season title before losing to Iowa State in the conference tournament final, plays New Mexico State (23-10) on Friday in Omaha, Nebraska. That is where the Jayhawks started in 2008 on way to a national championship and again in 2012 en route to another title game.
Even before knowing Kansas would be in the same bracket, coach Bill Self had no interest in talking about the possibility of playing Kentucky again. Kansas lost 72-40 to the Wildcats in Indianapolis on Nov. 18.
“That will never be mentioned. Our goal is to win a two-game tournament, that’s it,” Self said after the Big 12 championship game Saturday night. “And the next weekend your goal is to win a two-game tournament.”
The Jayhawks’ second tournament game could be pretty fired up, too.
Wichita State (28-4), a Final Four team two years ago, is the No. 7 seed and opens against Indiana (20-13) in the Midwest’s other Friday game in Omaha. A win for the Shockers could lead to the Jayhawks, an instate rival they haven’t played since 1993 and a team they have long wanted to play during the regular season.
“A lot of people talk about it all the time, they want to see us play,” said Kansas leading scorer Perry Ellis, a Wichita native. “That’s great. Fans want to see that, but our focus isn’t on that right now. It’s on the first game.”
Unless there is an unprecedented opening upset, Kentucky will play its second of six games needed for a national championship against No. 8 seed Cincinnati (22-10) or No. 9 Purdue (21-12), the other Midwest matchup Thursday in Louisville.
ACC tournament champion Notre Dame (29-5), coming off wins over Duke and North Carolina on consecutive nights to win that title, is the No. 3 seed. The Fighting Irish play Northeastern (23-11), which won its first-ever Colonial Athletic Conference tournament, in Pittsburgh on Thursday.
Bobby Hurley, who won two national championships as Duke’s point guard, is now in the NCAA tournament as a head coach, leading the Bulls (23-9) to their first-ever appearance. The Mid-American Conference champs, who have won eight games in a row, play No. 5 seed West Virginia (23-9) and coach Bob Huggins of the Big 12 on Friday in Columbus Ohio.
No. 6 seed Butler (22-10), the national runner-up in 2010 and 2011, plays Texas (20-13), another Big 12 team that lost to Kentucky this season.
Maryland (27-6), which had a school-record 26 wins in the regular season after being picked near the bottom of the Big Ten in the preseason, is the No. 4 seed and takes on Valparaiso (28-5). It is the Terrapins’ first NCAA trip in coach Mark Turgeon’s four seasons.
“Heck, we’ve won 85, 86 games in my four years but we haven’t played in this tournament,” Turgeon said. “Not a lot of people had us playing in this tournament before the year started so to be a part of it is a great accomplishment for us.”
AP Sports Writers Dave Skretta and Dave Ginsburg contributed to this report.
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