- Start Time: 7:10 ET on Friday, March 17th.
- Location: Greensboro Coliseum in Greensboro, North Carolina.
- TV Channel: CBS will have today’s TV coverage.
- Announcers: Ian Eagle, Jim Spanarkel, and Evan Washburn will call the action.
- Live Online Stream: NCAA.com and the March Madness Live app.
- Radio: Tom Leach and Jack Givens have the UK radio network call on the UK Sports Radio Network, Westwood One Sports, and the Varsity app on mobile devices.
- Replay: You can watch condensed replays of each NCAA Tournament game using March Madness Live.
- Rosters: UK | PROV
- Team Sheets: UK | PROV
- Stats To Know: UK | PROV
- Odds: DraftKings Sportsbook currently has Kentucky favored by 4.5 points. KenPom gives the Cats a 57% chance of victory, while Bart Torvik is at 62%, and ESPN BPI is at 63.8%.
- Predictions: KenPom predicts a 75-73 win for the Wildcats, while Bart Torvik is going with a 75-72 thriller for Big Blue Nation. TeamRankings (via ESPN) is projecting a 73-69 victory, Kentucky! Go here for more predictions on how Kentucky will fare in the NCAA Tournament.
- Depth Charts via KenPom:
After a home loss to South Carolina in January, the Kentucky Wildcats had played themselves out of the NCAA Tournament field and had yet to win a marque game.
Yet, this team showed a resilience that many did not believe they had and won some impressive games down the stretch, finishing with six Quad 1 victories.
Now just over two months from that South Carolina loss, the Wildcats are entering the NCAA Tournament as a 6-seed, with a fairly good draw to make a run. However, their opening-round game comes against the Providence Friars, who have a familiar face on their roster in former Wildcat Bryce Hopkins.
Already entering the NCAA Tournament under immense pressure to win an NCAA Tournament game, John Calipari now has the added pressure of not losing to a former player. With that said, both teams have an identical 21-11 record and have shown inconsistencies throughout the regular season.
On paper, Kentucky has the talent advantage, but as John Calipari said after last weekend’s loss to Vanderbilt, “We’ve shown who we are. We can beat anybody. But I hate to tell you, we can get beat by anybody.”
Now let’s take a closer look at Kentucky’s opening-round matchup.
Let’s start with the biggest storyline of the game, Bryce Hopkins. Averaging just 2.1 PPG and 1.4 RPG at Kentucky a season ago, the former Wildcat is nearly averaging a double-double for Providence this season with 16.1 PPG and 8.5 RPG, earning All-BIG EAST First Team honors.
While Hopkins regrets going to Kentucky, per an interview with Brian Hamilton of The Athletic, his time wasn’t all bad. In his sole season in Lexington, he formed lasting relationships with eight of the Wildcats’ current players, including Jacob Toppin.
Ironically, Toppin was the first to congratulate Hopkins during a breakout game against LSU (13 points, 4 rebounds) last season, but will be matched up against his former teammate on Friday.
Fortunately, the matchup seems to favor Toppin who is arguably Kentucky’s best defender and should be able to bother Hopkins with his length and lateral quickness but must force him out of the paint and cut him off on drives. On the offensive side of the ball, Toppin needs to score in double digits against Hopkins, who has been an inefficient defender for much of the season.
Based on comments from both sides, they are looking forward to the challenge.
“God works in mysterious ways,” Hopkins said of facing Kentucky. “Just can’t wait to prepare for them and play them.”
“J.T.-Bryce matchup? TOUGH!... I like it. I like it.”
Win the Rebounding Battle
On paper, Providence is a good rebounding team, ranking top 100 in most metrics. However, they have been outrebounded five times this season, losing all five games by an average of 14.4 points.
One reason for this is that Providence plays an undersized lineup, which has been exploited at times this season. If the Friars stick with the same starting five, the Wildcats will have a size advantage at every position, as was the case in their game against Auburn.
Given the size advantage, Kentucky must display its dominance on the boards. This is especially important on the offensive side of the ball in terms of second-chance opportunities and transition opportunities. Yet, it can also help a struggling defense, limiting the opponent to just one possession.
With that said, winning the rebound battle does not guarantee a victory. In fact, Vanderbilt beat Kentucky twice in two weeks despite being outrebounded by 15 or more in both matchups.
Convert in Transition
Defensively, Providence does not want to play in transition as their defense is vastly better when set. Fortunately, Kentucky likes to push the ball in transition when possible and is efficient when doing so.
As Georgia’s Mike White said earlier this season, “Oscar (Tshiebwe)’s one of the best rim-running bigs that again we’ve evaluated and scouted against in a long time... But they’ve also got wings that they can pitch ahead to that are skilled and can make plays in space.”
While the Wildcats don’t generate many turnovers, they rebound the ball very well, which allows them to push the ball ahead of the defense. One player the could help tremendously in this area is Chris Livingston, who crashes the boards harder than any wing in the country, and has the athleticism to excel in the open floor.
Another wrinkle that could be added is the availability of Sahvir Wheeler, who Calipari has said has been practicing. If he is available, he can use his downhill speed to generate some offense for the Wildcats, even in short spurts.
Stay out of Foul Trouble
In the KenPom offensive efficiency rankings, Providence is ranked 16th - just two spots behind Kentucky - proving they have a good offense and can score the ball. They do so by using their bigs to stretch the floor and getting offense within 15 feet.
Through much of the season, Kentucky has often failed to stop good offenses, especially those that play a similar ‘spread’ style to Providence. Case in point, Vanderbilt. Yet, what hurt Kentucky most in that matchup was foul trouble.
Providence will be no different as their aggressive style of play looks to draw contact. On the season, the Friars shoot more than 22 free throws per game - a top-25 mark in the nation - which accounts for more than 20 percent of their scoring.
With that said, Kentucky must be disciplined and defend without fouling, especially given how fragile the lineups have shown to be.