Kentucky will open against play-in winner

March 15, 2004|LARRY VAUGHT

Kentucky knows it will open NCAA Tournament play in Columbus, Ohio, Friday, but the Wildcats still don't know who they will be playing.

The NCAA selection committee made Kentucky (26-4) the overall No. 1 seed in the tourney and paired the Wildcats against the winner of Tuesday's play-in game between Florida A&M and Lehigh in Dayton, Ohio. Tipoff for UK's opening tourney game Friday will be 7:10 p.m.

Eighth-seeded Washington (19-11), the only team to beat Stanford this season, and ninth seed Alabama-Birmingham (20-8) will also play in Columbus. If UK beats the Lehigh-Florida A&M winner, it will play the Washington-UAB survivor Sunday at 5 p.m. for a berth in the St. Louis Region semifinals March 26.

"We're very happy and excited about being a No. 1 seed," said Kentucky coach Tubby Smith Sunday night. "I'm proud of this group and what they have been able to achieve throughout the season. They've shown their competitive grit and moxie all year long - a never quit, never say die attitude. That's what has pulled us through. Coming out of the SEC, which is the toughest league in the country, has hopefully prepared us for the NCAA Tournament.


"Our region looks pretty strong. There are a lot of outstanding teams and players."

Kentucky has never played Florida A&M or Lehigh. Kentucky beat Washington in the 1985 NCAA tourney in the only matchup between the two schools. The Cats have split games with UAB, but the Blazers did beat UK in the 1981 NCAA Tournament.

This is the ninth time that UK has been a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. However, only one of Kentucky's seven national titles (1996) in 45 NCAA appearances came when it was a No. 1 seed.

The Wildcats were also the No. 1 seed in 1986 (losing to LSU in the regional finals), 1993 (losing to Michigan in the Final Four), 1995 (losing to North Carolina in the regional finals) and 1997 (losing to Arizona in the NCAA title game).

Last year, the Wildcats lost to Marquette 83-69 in the Midwest regional final.

Kentucky was a No. 2 seed when it won the 1998 NCAA championship in Smith's first season as coach.

"We've had our goal set all year to win a national championship," said Kentucky's Chuck Hayes. "We really don't worry about who we play or where we play. We understand that you can only focus on one game at a time and you have no control over who you play. The only thing you control is winning."

Smith has not seen either team play this season

Smith said Sunday night he had not seen Lehigh or Texas A&M play this season, but that it made sense for his team to play the play-in game winner since Dayton is so close to Columbus.

Lehigh played its way into the NCAA field Sunday when freshman guard Jose Olivero hit a leaning shot with 3.9 seconds to play to give the Mountain Hawks a 59-57 victory over American in the Patriot League title game.

Lehigh (20-10) will be making its first tournament appearance since 1988 when it faces Florida A&M. The Mountain Hawks had a six-point lead with 1 minute, 22 seconds to play before American tied the game to set the stage for Olivero's game-winning shot.

Senior guard Austen Rowland, the Patriot League Player of the Year, led Lehigh with 14 points and Jason Mgebroff added 13. The Mountain Hawks also got 23 points from their bench players in the win.

Lehigh played two NCAA Tournament teams during the season. The Mountain Hawks lost 75-55 at Connecticut Dec. 1 and fell 85-59 at Vanderbilt Dec. 30. Kentucky split games with Vandy this season.

The Mountain Hawks, who have had 10 different players start games this season, average 67.5 points per game and allow 63.4. They are shooting 42.9 percent from the field and allowing opponents to shoot 41 percent. Leigh averages just over six 3-point goals per game and gives up about 5.5 3-pointers per outing.

Rowland, a transfer from Delaware, leads the team with 15.7 points, 4.1 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game. Olivero adds 11.8 points and 2.3 rebounds per game.

Coach Billy Taylor led Lehigh to the second biggest turnaround in NCAA history last year when the Hawks finished 16-12 in his first year after going 5-23 the season before. Taylor uses an aggressive man-to-man defense and motion offense, but he rebuilt his team this year with four new starters.

Florida A&M (14-16) lost to two teams in the NCAA field. The Rattlers lost to North Carolina State 92-62 and Florida 102-78. They also lost to Georgia 77-59 and Marquette 83-63.

Florida A&M, which had its first winning season in 12 years last season, got into the tourney by beating Coppin State 58-51 in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championship game.

Senior guard Terrence Woods, a transfer from Tennessee, leads Florida A&M in scoring at 20.1 points per game. He shoots 41 percent overall from the field and 39.8 percent from 3-point range. He's also fourth on the team in rebounding at 4.1 per game.

Demarcus Wilkins, another senior guard, averages 14.4 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game. Junior center Michael Harper, a transfer from North Carolina-Asheville, adds 9.5 points and 4.5 rebounds per game for coach Mike Gillespie.

Smith said he likes the idea of playing in Columbus, and if UK can advance, St. Louis.

"Columbus is only a three-hour drive from Lexington, so we should have lots of fans," Smith said. "I don't want to look past Columbus, but we've always drawn well in St. Louis and hopefully we can do what we need to do in order to get there."

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