LOUISVILLE, Ky. (CBSNewYork/AP) — Hampton’s upset of Manhattan put an end to any thoughts Jaspers coach and former Kentucky player Steve Masiello had of facing the top-ranked Wildcats.
Now, the Pirates enter their matchup with 34-0 Kentucky in Thursday night’s Midwest Region second-round game as heavy underdogs — but they’re playing with house money. They weren’t even expected to be here.
Nonetheless, the top-seeded Wildcats say they’re not looking past any team, including Hampton. But Kentucky does have some homework to do.
Wildcat freshman guard Tyler Ulis said Wednesday, “We actually have not watched them yet.”
Still, the Wildcats know that as they begin the final stretch of their quest to become the first undefeated national champion in program history, they have to take every opponent seriously, starting with the 16th-seeded Pirates (17-17).
“If you lose, you are done,” Kentucky 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein said. “If you win, you keep on going. That is what propels those teams, not only us. Everybody’s going to fight that fight.”
That includes the upstart Pirates, who never trailed in Tuesday night’s 74-64 First Four victory over favored Manhattan in Dayton, Ohio, for their first tournament win since 2001. Seeded last in the 68-team field, Hampton notched its fifth straight win to even its record at .500.
Pirates coach Edward Joyner Jr. joked afterward about needing “Jesus on speed dial” to beat Kentucky, and it indeed be somewhat of a miracle considering the Wildcats’ size and depth. Asked if he called on a higher power again, Joyner added, “actually, he sent me an email and said go ahead and prepare. We’ll talk a little bit later on.”
Hampton enters the game as 33-point underdogs, according to the New York Post.
“We’re going to have to play as close to perfect as you can,” Joyner said. “They have us as a one-in-a-billion shot. That’s one shot we do have and we’re going to try to take advantage of that one shot.”
Hampton will need guard Quinton Chievous to play well after he sprained his ankle against Manhattan. While he will probably play, Joyner said top scorer and rebounder Dwight Meikle is out as he continues recovering from a high ankle sprain.
That puts Hampton even more of a disadvantage, but Joyner said his team isn’t afraid of the challenge it faces.
“Kentucky’s a great team, but at the end of the day everybody wants to play against the best and see how you measure up against the best,” he said. “That’s what we’re going to get the chance to do tomorrow night and we earned that right.”
Some other things to look for when Kentucky meets Hampton late Thursday:
Scoring the first seven points against Manhattan put Hampton ahead to stay, and Joyner said his team needs to maintain that intensity to have any chance against Kentucky. The Wildcats want to play with that same urgency, but Cauley-Stein said finding the right balance is key. “You can get over-amped, but that is when you play good,” he said. “If you get too anxious, timing is off. You just have to try and approach it normally.”
MI CASA ES SU CASA
Kentucky starts this year’s title quest at the KFC Yum! Center, the home court of archrival Louisville. The Wildcats’ run to their 2012 title began here, and Kentucky won this season’s rivalry game back in December. With the Cardinals at the West regional in Seattle, Wildcats fans staked their claim at Wednesday’s open workout by packing the arena’s lower bowl.
Six-foot-11 freshman Karl-Anthony Towns has combined for 16 points and 10 rebounds the past two games but has battled foul trouble with one disqualification. The Wildcats have the depth to get past Hampton, but need for the talented post player to stay in the game as they continue to advance.
SHORT ROAD TRIPS
Both teams didn’t have to travel far to get here. Kentucky’s journey was only about 85 miles west on I-64, while Hampton traveled a few hours south after Tuesday night’s victory. “It’s kind of pretty nice to play at home,” sophomore center Dakari Johnson said. “Easy travel for our fans, and we have a big fan base here. So it’s kind of cool, I guess.”
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