The Midwest is SEC country, as Kentucky's win ensures league will have team in Final Four

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Officially, Kansas City was annexed into the SEC in 2012 when Missouri was welcomed into the conference.

The assimilation, however, is taking its sweet time. This city that sits on the Missouri River still has its strong Big 12 tendencies. The University of Kansas is 40 minutes down the road (the state is literally, at times, across the road). Kansas State is about the same distance away that Missouri is. And the Big 12 basketball tournament is held annually at the Sprint Center. In March especially, the SEC can be an afterthought.

But if Kansas City ever becomes a city evenly divided between its conference allegiances, the shift started Friday night.

No. 2 seed Kentucky beat No. 3 Houston 62-58 to advance to the Elite Eight. There, the Wildcats will take on No. 5 Auburn, who blitzed No. 1 North Carolina 97-80 despite losing forward Chuma Okeke to a knee injury in the second half.

When the bracket for the Midwest regional came out two weeks ago, many around Kansas City expected the Sprint Center to be filled with Big 12 fans. Kansas was, somehow, the No. 4 seed in its own backyard. Iowa State, who beat Kansas for the Big 12 tournament title the day before Selection Sunday in a building filled with more maroon than blue, was the No. 6 seed.

But the Cyclones got dumped in the first round by Ohio State. Kansas, meanwhile, was run off the court in the first half by Auburn in the second round, ensuring that two SEC teams would be among the four in K.C. And as it happens, those two are going to be playing each other for a trip to the Final Four.

Kentucky’s P.J. Washington gets a lot of credit for that.

Washington scores 16, gets key block

With 34 seconds left and his team leading 58-57, Houston guard Corey Davis got past his defender and cruised toward what looked like a potential game-clinching layup. But Washington flew over from the back side and swatted the ball away and Davis went crashing to the ground.

As Davis was on the floor still trying to comprehend what happened, Kentucky pushed up court. A couple passes later, Tyler Herro hit a 3-pointer to put the Wildcats up for good at 60-58. Washington’s block came a play after he made a turnaround jumper to bring the Wildcats within one.

“We don’t win the game today without him,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “We don’t.”

Washington returned to the court Friday after missing Kentucky’s first two games of the NCAA tournament due a foot injury sustained in the SEC tournament. He clearly wasn’t teasing when he posted a picture earlier in the week of his foot without a boot on it.

But while he looked spry throughout the entire game, he admitted that his foot started bothering him a little bit in the second half.

“Oh, yeah, I took some pain pills before the game,” Washington said. “Kind of started hurting in the second half, but I have to tough through it. Through the end of the game, it was trying to cramp up.”

Washington finished with 16 points on 6-of-8 shooting in 26 minutes. With him on the court, even at 90 percent, Kentucky is a team near full strength. And it is the prohibitive favorite on Sunday.

“We respect their players and what they do and how they play and how hard they play,” Calipari said of Auburn. “We're a little different than them. They're going to take 35, 40 [three-point shots]. It's what they do. We're not going to shoot that many, but we'll take them if they're there, and, you know, it should be a good game. One good thing means that the SEC will have at least one team in the Final Four.”

KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI - MARCH 29: PJ Washington #25 of the Kentucky Wildcats and Tyler Herro #14 react during the second half against the Houston Cougars during the 2019 NCAA Basketball Tournament Midwest Regional at Sprint Center on March 29, 2019 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Kentucky has beaten Auburn twice in 2019

The Wildcats were the last team to beat Auburn back on Feb. 23. In that game, Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said the Wildcats “physically overwhelmed” the Tigers. Kentucky won 80-53.

“We haven't lost since that game in late February,” Pearl said. The lesson there was we didn't — because we respect Kentucky so much and we recognize they had a great night — these guys weren't destroyed. Kentucky really beat us. We didn't play great, but we got it handed to us because they played so well.”

Any physical mismatch is even more in favor of Kentucky with Okeke’s injury. The guy who Pearl said was his team’s most versatile and who point guard Jared Harper said was the team’s most valuable player crumpled into a heap after his left knee twisted awkwardly in the second half.

Since that Kentucky loss, Auburn has won 11 straight games and hasn’t scored fewer than 65 points in any of them. Okeke has been a large part of that, as he’s been in double figures in nine of those 11.

It’s not a stretch to say an Auburn win on Sunday without Okeke to secure the school’s first Final Four bid would be one of the biggest upsets of the tournament. Though Auburn isn’t much of a Cinderella, even if they’re extremely fun to watch and will be missing their best player against a team that many love to hate.

After all, a former assistant coach pled guilty as part of the FBI’s probe into college basketball corruption and a current assistant coach is suspended for his alleged role in a bribery scheme from when he was at Penn.

And Pearl himself received a three-year show-cause penalty in 2011 for lying to NCAA investigators. Throw in Calipari’s two vacated Final Fours from his time at UMass and Memphis and this SEC showdown isn’t much of a feel-good story unless you’re a fan of either program.

The conference’s expansion into these parts wasn’t exactly a feel-good story around here either. It’s still a little weird to locals that the Big 12 tournament is held in a state where there’s no member school. And even more so that longstanding rivalries were upended with the SEC’s promise of more money in exchange for a greater league footprint and wider cable-channel distribution.

But with a thriller and a full arena on Sunday, that footprint may not seem as faint as it once did.

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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.

Follow @NickBromberg on Twitter

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