Des Moines loaded with college basketball royalty, but Kentucky Wildcats must first deal with Stony Brook

DES MOINES, Iowa -- As the NCAA Tournament tips off here Thursday at Wells Fargo Arena, it would take a script written by "Game of Thrones" author George R.R. Martin to showcase more royal families jockeying for supremacy.

Kentucky once again finds itself in a loaded region that features some of the biggest names in college basketball history. With UK and Indiana representing the East Region and Kansas and UConn representing the South, the Des Moines pod includes the two winningest programs in history, a combined 20 national championships and some of the most rabid fans in the country.

It's an amazing setting for a first-time time tournament host.

"It's terrific for the city, and I think this is one of those rare moments where we're all in one place together, and it should be exciting because it should be some great basketball," UK coach John Calipari said Wednesday during the introductory press conferences. "It should be some of the exciting stuff that, you know, basketball fans want to see, and it should be fun."

Before the 4th-seeded Wildcats can reach a potential high-profile matchup with the rival Hoosiers, they must first deal with 13 seed Stony Brook, winner of the America East Conference. It's a classic David-and-Goliath NCAA storyline with UK making its record 55th tourney appearance and the Sea Wolves earning their first trip.

"You know, I do think when you see Kentucky on the board, you get their focus pretty quickly," Stony Brook coach Steve Pikiell said. "They know all the players and they know what the program means. They were very familiar with them. Obviously, you turn on SportsCenter and you see Kentucky players.

"...So it's really an incredible time for us, and the guys are soaking it in and enjoying it. But when it's time to watch film, they're pretty focused and Kentucky makes you be that way."

For their part, the Wildcats (26-8) say they are taking nothing for granted. Stony Brook has won 10 of its last 12 games and played common opponent Vanderbilt to a closer game (79-72) in Nashville than UK.

"They're good," Calipari said of the Sea Wolves (26-6). "Our team knows they're good... The one thing, you know, they can beat us. They can. They've got great inside presence, they shoot the ball, they play pack-line defense."

At times, all three of those things have given UK issues this season. But the strong post presence -- embodied by America East Player of the Year Jameel Warney -- is the biggest concern. The 6-foot-8, 256-pounder averages 19.8 points and 10.7 rebounds per game.

"He's good," said UK freshman guard Isaiah Briscoe, who played for the same Roselle Catholic High School in New Jersey that produced the Stony Brook big man. The two have played many pick-up games in the past.

Calipari noted the Sea Wolves will show the same type of energy and enthusiasm that UK has grown accustomed to seeing in almost all of its games.

"The thing about being at Kentucky is everyone we play is someone's Super Bowl," he said. "If we don't play, we lose, because the other team is going to play out of their minds... It's what being at Kentucky is, so I'm not worried about that. We may get beat anyway, but I think our kids will play."

Having a leader like sophomore point guard Tyler Ulis on the floor almost ensures the Cats will not overlook Stony Brook.

"He's done great, and I think he's excited about us and this team," Calipari said.  "....We lost seven guys to the NBA. This is a different team. We lost 95 percent of our scoring. He started leading a team that he knew nothing about, and neither did we. And by the end, they've come together. And most of it like, I would like to take credit that, oh, it was the coaching. Well, let me just tell you, it's his leadership, and he's coaching on the floor as much as anything else." 

It will be needed with another freshman-dominated lineup entering March Madness for the first time.

"The first game is the hardest," Calipari said. "I will throw that out there. All the coaches in this tournament who have been here a number of years know the teams get better as you advance, but the first one is the hard one, especially if you have guys like we do. We start three freshmen who have never played in an NCAA Tournament game."

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