(1) Kentucky v. (16) Hampton
Time: 9:40 PM ET
Spread: KEN -34.5
Betting odds c/o Bookmaker
Never once in NCAA tournament history has a No. 16 seed taken down a No. 1, and with the Kentucky Wildcats sitting at a firm 34-0 this season, college basketball oddsmakers aren’t expecting the bottom seeded Hampton Pirates to have much of an impact on that ‘L’ column. Early college basketball odds showed the Wildcats as 34.5 point favorites in second round action of the Midwest region with the over/under set at 134.5.
Kentucky closed its season in strong fashion by sweeping through the SEC tournament. It added definitive punctuation by handing a 78-63 defeat to then-No. 21 Arkansas in the championship game, behind what may have been the best game of center Willie Cauley-Stein’s college career. He impacted the game tremendously on both ends of the court, eventually finishing with 15 points, 10 rebounds (3 offensive) and two blocks in 30 efficient minutes, even knocking down 5 of 6 from the line as a notoriously poor free throw shooter. The seven-footer is expected to be a high first round pick in the 2015 NBA draft and will be looking to solidify his draft position in this tournament.
But Cauley-Stein is hardly the only Wildcat with something at stake here.
Starting big man Karl-Anthony Towns is now projected to go No. 1 or No. 2 overall in June, and the talented freshman has been quietly dominant, if such a juxtaposition can be laced. In 19 minutes in the win over the Razorbacks, he shot 3 of 5 for eight points, four rebounds and two blocks. Defensively is where Towns may shine initially in the NBA, and opponents in this tournament are going to have a tough time penetrating the interior of the Wildcats’ defense.
Moreover, the Harrison twins, Andrew and Aaron, are both good tempo controlling guards who bring stability and control to this team, that should help the Wildcats avoid fizzling out against teams with dominant guard play.
It can be expected Coach John Calipari will begin now to tighten the rotation of a deep squad he has distributed the minutes to evenly all season. In the SEC championship game, only two Wildcats came off the bench to see significant action, and the bench produced just nine points on six field goal attempts. Trey Lyles, the Harrisons, Cauley-Stein and Towns are due to carry this team, though the depth can certainly come in handy in the event of either injuries or foul trouble.
None of that should matter against weaker opponents, and most especially not against No. 16 seeded Hampton, but it will be vital as the tournament winds to its close. It also may give Cal the luxury of resting some of his stars during games that are likely in the Wildcats’ control.
Hampton finished the season 17-17 with an 8-8 record in the MEAC. The team ranked near the bottom of the NCAA in both assists per game and field goal percentage, so it is a very inefficient offense that will have trouble functioning against a premier defense like Kentucky’s. While typically, there is an element of low seeds competing for one half of basketball, it’s tough to imagine Hampton even doing that. The Pirates feature a starting lineup with all members averaging about or more than 10 points per game, but has no standout talents.
The status of leading scorer guard Dwight Meikle will make the difference in whether or not the Pirates can cover the spread. He’s leading the team in both rebounding and scoring, but is nursing a bum ankle. It’s hard not to imagine him appearing in his only chance to be a member of an NCAA tournament team (most likely?), but without Meikle this could be a 50-point blowout instead of one to the tune of 35-40 points. In the end, though, will anyone even care?