Kentucky goes west in defense of NCAA title
Kentucky is headed for unfamiliar territory a long way from home in defense of its NCAA championship.
The Wildcats (30-4) received the No. 1 seed in the tournament’s West Regional on Sunday, the same day they routed Georgia 95-68 to win their fifth Southeastern Conference tournament title in six years.
Only five of the region’s 16 teams are located in the west, making for long journeys for the East Coast and Midwest schools to the first-round sites in Salt Lake City and Tucson, Ariz.
``We have had to face adversity all season long with the number of injuries we’ve had. Now we will face adversity again,″ Kentucky coach Rick Pitino said. ``We have to travel a long distance, and if we advance, we will have to face teams that are familiar with our style of play. But I am confident in our players, and I look forward to the challenge.″
While Kentucky travels 1,500 miles to Salt Lake City, No. 16 Montana has a much quicker trip to reach its first-round game Thursday against the Wildcats.
The Grizzlies (21-10) earned their fourth NCAA tournament berth and third in seven years by holding off Cal State Northridge 82-79 in the Big Sky Conference tournament title game.
Another team from the West earned the region’s No. 2 seed.
Utah (26-3) plays its first-round game Friday against No. 15 Navy in Tucson, a city Utes coach Rick Majerus particularly wanted to visit.
``I’d like to go to Tucson, we deserve Tucson. I deserve Tucson,″ Majerus said Saturday. ``They’ll probably put someone down there who doesn’t like Mexican food, won’t go in the sun or lust after the beautiful babes. If anybody deserves Tucson it’s me.″
The Utes won the Western Athletic Conference tournament Saturday over Texas Christian 89-68.
They reached the title game only after senior Keith Van Horn made two buzzer-beater shots in the first two rounds.
Wake Forest, hoping for a No. 1 seed earlier in the season, wound up No. 3 in the West because of a slump in recent weeks.
The Demon Deacons (23-6) lost to rival North Carolina in the semifinals of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, despite 33 points from Tim Duncan.
Wake Forest will be traveling nearly coast-to-coast for its first-round game against No. 14 St. Mary’s of California in Tucson.
St. Mary’s, a 4,000-student school in Moraga outside the Bay area, earned the West Coast Conference’s automatic berth. The Gaels are in the NCAA tournament for just the third time ever and first since 1989.
The Gaels (23-7) offer an interesting matchup at center against Wake. Brad Millard, a 7-foot-3, 345-pound sophomore nicknamed ``Big Continent,″ and the 6-10, 240-pound Duncan, a senior All-America, will mix it up in the paint.
Millard, who wasn’t recruited by any Pacific-10 Conference schools, scored a career-high 22 points in St. Mary’s 66-59 win over San Francisco in the WCC tournament final.
St. Joseph’s (24-6) is another team making an appearance after a long drought. The Hawks haven’t been to the NCAAs since 1986. They won the Atlantic 10′s automatic berth, beating Rhode Island 61-56 in the tournament final.
No. 4 St. Joseph’s plays No. 13 Pacific at Salt Lake City. Other games there involve No. 8 Iowa against No. 9 Virginia and No. 5 Boston University against No. 12 Valparaiso.
In Tucson, No. 6 Stanford takes on No. 11 Oklahoma and No. 7 North Carolina-Charlotte faces No. 10 Georgetown.
Stanford (20-7), led by point guard Brevin Knight, won seven of its final eight games to end up in a three-way tie for second in the Pacific-10 Conference.