The NCAA Tournament kicked off last night and today at noon the Commonwealth’s own version of March Madness, the Sweet 16, begins at Rupp Arena.
Sixteen teams from all over the state will battle it out to determine the very best schoolboy team of 2016.
Below is a preview of all of today’s opening games.
Buckhorn vs. Murray
Buckhorn (18-13) comes into its first Sweet 16 in over two decades as the sentimental favorite from the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. Most of the Wildcats press thus far has come in the form of public interest in head coach John Noble’s second career as a professional wrestler. However, Buckhorn should not be overlooked by any team in the field despite their pedestrian record.
To get to Rupp, the Wildcats survived a rugged 14th Region and defeated two of the region’s top teams, Letcher County Central and Perry County Central, in close contests. So they are battle tested, but their fortitude will be tested by the bright lights of Rupp Arena.
Senior guard Connor Hoskins is the Wildcats’ jack-of-all-trades. He averages a team high 22 points-per-game, shoots 48 percent from the field (44 percent from deep) and snags seven boards per contest.
The Murray Tigers (28-5) didn’t sneak up on anybody in the 1st Region. An impressive 18-1 record in region play and a deep run in the All A Tournament marked the Tigers as one of the favorites to cut down the nets in the Purchase two weeks ago.
Murray did just that by outlasting Paducah Tilghman and McCracken County in two tight games that went down to the wire to clinch the school’s first trip to the state tournament since the 1980’s.
The Tigers don’t rely on just one player to get things done. James Boone (13 points-per-game), Duane Curtis (10 points-per-game) and Preston English (13 points-per-game) share the scoring responsibilities. Murray is also an excellent shooting team with majority of their rotation shooting over 40 percent a game.
Newport Central Catholic vs. Trinity
Love them or hate them, the Trinity Shamrocks (29-6) survived the gauntlet in the 7th Region to make their third trip to Rupp Arena in the last five years. The Rocks’ came from behind to win in overtime against both Ballard and St. Xavier, so they will not be phased in a close game.
Trinity is anchored by a solid backcourt. Senior guard Gabriel Schmidt averages 14 points-per-game and is a solid scorer from all over the court. Junior Michael King is crafty with the ball but also does his fair share of scoring, averaging 14 points-per-game.
Newport Central Catholic (28-4) knocked off their top competition in dominating fashion in the 9th Region, and then nipped a comeback attempt by archrival Covington Catholic in the final to breakthrough the glass ceiling after several years of close calls against the Colonels.
Senior forward Ben Weyer was a lethal weapon for the Thoroughbreds during the regional tourney and his length will be an issue for anyone the Breds’ face at Rupp. Weyer averages a double-double, 22 points and eleven rebounds. He is complimented by a young backcourt. Sophomore Brennan Hall and junior Luke Moeves each chip in 12 points a contest.
Paul Laurence Dunbar vs. Mercer County
Winning the 11th Region Tournament is never easy and the Dunbar Bulldogs beat two of the top 15 teams in the state, Henry Clay and Scott County, to punch their first ticket to Rupp Arena since 1997. Thanks to a tough region and strong early conference schedule, the Bulldog won’t be phased by the high level of competition at the Sweet 16.
The Bulldogs have one of the best and most athletic backcourts in the Commonwealth this season. Guards Taveion Hollingsworth, a junior, Jordan Lewis and Darius Williams, both seniors, combine to average 50 points a game.
Mercer County (30-1) was undefeated for most of the season but their only loss came to Lafayette it what was arguably their toughest game of the season. However, anyone overlooking the Titans is foolish to do so.
Trevon Faulkner, a sophomore guard, is one of the top players in the state for his class and averages a team high 19 points-per-game. He is joined on the perimeter by Will James and Malik Dow. Each of them average double figures in scoring with Dow grabbing a team high ten rebounds a contest. The Titans also have a rock solid man in the post, Dylan James. He averages 16 points and seven boards a game.
Bowling Green vs. Elliott County
Bowling Green (30-2) advanced to the state finals last season and return to Rupp Arena determined to bring the big trophy back to the 4th Region. The Purples went 18-0 in region play but had to scrap their way to Rupp in rough and tumble games against Russell County and Barren County.
Juniors Kyran Jones and Terry Taylor makeup a solid inside duo. Jones is an inside and outside threat. He shoots 37 percent from the three point line and averages 10 rebounds a game. Taylor is a traditional post player and the team’s leading scorer at 15 points-per-game to go along with a team high 12 rebounds-per-game.
The Elliott County Wildcats (22-7) and most of Sandy Hook are headed to the Sweet 16 for the second year in a row. The Wildcats won all of their games in the 16th Region Tournament by at least ten points.
Freshman guard Korbin Spencer is the Wildcats’ leading scorer averages a team high 17 points. He is joined in the backcourt by junior Chase Porter (16 points and 7 rebounds a game). Senior forward Collin Howell provides a solid presence in the post and contributes ten points, seven rebounds a game.