Having Kentucky in the NCAA tournament is commonplace. Seeing the program ousted in the first round certainly isn’t.
This could be the biggest challenge Kentucky has faced to begin an NCAA tournament since it last fell in the opening round 20 years ago, with a West Regional matchup against Villanova on Friday.
Making its NCAA-record 48th appearance at this event, Kentucky (21-11) has failed to win at least one game only three times—in 1981, 1982 and 1987. This is the 16th straight year it has received a bid, the third-longest streak in the nation behind Arizona (23) and Kansas (18), and second in a row as a No. 8 seed.
Last year, coach Tubby Smith’s team opened with a 67-62 win over UAB in its first opening-round game against a major-conference opponent since 1987, when it also was seeded eighth and lost to Ohio State.
While the winner of this matchup is likely to next face top-seeded Kansas, there is no chance Kentucky will be looking ahead.
Villanova (22-10) is led by surging freshman Scottie Reynolds and has won eight of its last 11 games. Two of those defeats came to Big East champion Georgetown—by a combined eight points—and the other was a road loss to then-No. 16 Marquette.
“They’re very impressive,” Smith said. “They’re an outstanding free-throw shooting team. They’ve got an outstanding coach. We’re going to have to make sure we take care of the ball against them. As a whole they’re fundamentally very sound.”
Kentucky did not finish nearly as strong, losing six of nine and falling 84-82 in overtime to Mississippi State in the SEC tournament quarterfinals. The team went 0-7 against ranked opponents.
It appeared Smith’s job was in jeopardy until Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart implied Monday there would not be a coaching change after the season.
“We’ve had a couple years here that have been a little un-Kentuckylike, but I don’t think that’s a reason to panic,” Barnhart said.
Villanova never seemed to panic under coach Jay Wright despite a 4-5 start in Big East play after losing stars Randy Foye, Allan Ray and Kyle Lowry from last year’s team—a No. 1 seed which lost to eventual national champion Florida.
“Early in the year, why would you say we are a tournament team? We haven’t proven anything,” Villanova guard Mike Nardi said. “I think as the season went on, we kind of realized how good this team could be and where we could finish.”
Despite being a four-year starter, Nardi has taken a back seat in the backcourt to Reynolds, who has averaged 24.3 points over the last seven games. That run includes a 40-point effort in a win at Connecticut on Feb. 28, and a 29-point game in a first-round win over DePaul at the Big East tournament.
Reynolds, though, is looking to bounce back from his performance in the next round against Georgetown as he was held to 11 points on 4-of-14 shooting in a 62-57 loss.
Nardi, who averages 12.0 points, was limited to 10 total minutes in the conference tournament due to a sprained ankle and strained calf. The starting point guard said nothing would keep him out of this game.
“I want to have an impact on this team and hopefully we can do some damage,” said Nardi, who wants to make up for a mediocre 2006 NCAA tournament in which he totaled 14 points on 4-of-25 shooting.
Fellow senior Curtis Sumpter is Villanova’s best threat on the inside, averaging 17.3 points and 7.2 rebounds. He is part of a starting frontcourt that does not have one player taller than 6-foot-8, a potentially big advantage for Kentucky star Randolph Morris.
The 6-11, 259-pound center averages team highs of 15.8 points and 7.7 rebounds. Morris had his 11th double-double of the season in the SEC quarters with 29 points and 15 rebounds.
Kentucky was held to 38 percent shooting from the field against Mississippi State, and went 5-of-21 from 3-point range.
“Obviously that was a real downer, but we’ve had a few of those this year and we’ve bounced back the right way,” Smith said. “I’m in good spirits. Our kids are in good spirits.”
Guards Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley combined to go 2-of-10 from beyond the arc in the latest loss, but remain Kentucky’s top 3-point threats and account for 28.0 points per game.
Kentucky’s only loss in six meetings with Villanova came in a regional semifinal matchup in the 1988 NCAA tournament. The schools last met in 1998.