Five things to watch in UK-NKU game

Kentucky’s John Calipari watches his team practice on Thursday, March 16, 2017, at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. David Jablonski/Staff

Combined ShapeCaption
Kentucky’s John Calipari watches his team practice on Thursday, March 16, 2017, at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. David Jablonski/Staff

Dayton and Wichita State will tip off the evening session of NCAA tournament first-round action Friday at Indianapolis, and the winner will get to sit back and watch the nightcap between Kentucky and Northern Kentucky to find out its second-round foe.

The Wildcats (29-5) are riding an 11 game winning streak and on a quest to claim the ninth national championship in school history.

›› RELATED: 7 things to know about Dayton-Wichita State game

The Norse (24-10) have won six in a row and 10 of 11 to not only surge into the tournament for the first time in program history, but in the first year of eligibility since reclassifying from Division II.

The teams have met once before, a 93-63 Kentucky win on Nov. 10, 2013.

Here are five things to know about the UK-NKU game:

Marking Monk

While Kentucky boasts one of the deepest rosters in the country, look for the NKU defense to focus on freshman guard Malik Monk.

The Southeastern Conference Player of the Year is averaging 20.4 points per game, making him the highest scoring freshman to ever play for coach John Calipari.

In December, Monk set the UK freshman single-game scoring record with 47 points against North Carolina on 18 of 22 shooting, and two games later he scored 34 in the SEC opener against Mississippi, setting a school record for points by a freshman in road game.

Combined ShapeCaption
NASHVILLE, TN - MARCH 12: Malik Monk #5 of the Kentucky Wildcats drives against Anton Beard #31 of the Arkansas Razorbacks during the championship game at the 2017 Men’s SEC Basketball Tournament at Bridgestone Arena on March 12, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

NASHVILLE, TN - MARCH 12: Malik Monk #5 of the Kentucky Wildcats drives against Anton Beard #31 of the Arkansas Razorbacks during the championship game at the 2017 Men’s SEC Basketball Tournament at Bridgestone Arena on March 12, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Combined ShapeCaption
NASHVILLE, TN - MARCH 12: Malik Monk #5 of the Kentucky Wildcats drives against Anton Beard #31 of the Arkansas Razorbacks during the championship game at the 2017 Men’s SEC Basketball Tournament at Bridgestone Arena on March 12, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Follow Jay Morrison on Twitter

One, not done

Kentucky, which is making its nation-leading 56 appearance in the NCAA tournament, has not lost in the first round since 2008. And the Wildcats are 23-1 in openers since 1987.

But UK coach Calipari isn’t much interested in the past.

“Every year you come in, it’s different,” he said. “I have a different team every time we walk into this thing, so I don’t know what to expect other than try to get my guys in a good frame of mind. Don’t be afraid to lose. Don’t be afraid to miss shots. Don’t be afraid to be aggressive. Go for it.

“Forget about the score,” he continued. “Just keep playing to win. If that’s not good enough, it’s been a heck of a season.”

Archie’s admiration

One of the first congratulatory texts NKU coach John Brannen received after winning the Horizon League tournament was from Dayton coach Archie Miller.

“I texted him right after, just ‘congratulations, man,” Miller said. “What an awesome, awesome opportunity.”

Miller and Brannen got to know each other five years ago when UD played a home-and-home series with Alabama, where Brannen was Tide coach Anthony Gran’ts top assistant.

“I got to know John a little bit through our Alabama competing days, and when he was named the head coach at Northern Kentucky, being right down the road, I stayed in communication with him pretty well,” Miller said. “He’s done a terrific job. It’s not easy to go to a place like Northern Kentucky right off the bat, especially in the Horizon, which is a very tough league. The fact that they’re in the tournament right now, I mean I think that speaks volumes.”

Combined ShapeCaption
Northern Kentucky’s John Brannen speaks at a press conference before a NCAA tournament practice on Thursday, March 16, 2017, at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. David Jablonski/Staff

Northern Kentucky’s John Brannen speaks at a press conference before a NCAA tournament practice on Thursday, March 16, 2017, at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. David Jablonski/Staff

Combined ShapeCaption
Northern Kentucky’s John Brannen speaks at a press conference before a NCAA tournament practice on Thursday, March 16, 2017, at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. David Jablonski/Staff

Long shot

Since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, No. 2 seeds are 120-8 against No. 15 seeds in the first round.

But of those eight upsets, four have come since 2012 – Middle Tennessee State against Michigan State in 2016, Florida Gulf Coast against Georgetown in 2013, Lehigh against Duke in 2012 and Norfolk State against Missouri in 2012.

“You know what craziness happens in the tournament,” NKU senior guard Cole Murray said. “Obviously anything can happen.”

Odds makers list Kentucky as a 20-point favorite.

›› RELATED: Dayton, Wichita State share same problem — scheduling

Distinctive debuts

NKU is one of four teams making its NCAA tournament debut this season, and so far that group is undefeated.

UC Davis beat North Carolina Central 67-63 Wednesday night in a battle of No. 16 seeds at the First Four, and No. 8 Northwestern nipped No. 9 Vanderbilt 68-66 in a first-round game Thursday.

›› MORE: Dayton-Wichita State preview box

The other newcomer to the dance, Jacksonville State, is a 15 seed that will face No. 2 Louisville in Friday’s afternoon session in Indianapolis.

About the Author