Only this time, the NCAA did it for them.
Eastern Kentucky was ironically paired with the No. 2 seeded University of Kentucky Wildcats, and although the two schools are separated by just 25 miles, the NCAA named Indianapolis the site for Thursday's in-state battle.
The game produced numerous built-in storylines from the get-go. Eastern Kentucky (22-8), playing in their first tournament since 1979, is coached by former UK great Travis Ford. The bluegrass state will have 13 representatives in uniform when the game starts. EKU's Michael Haney and UK's Patrick Sparks are best of friends. And Ford, a former point guard for the Wildcats, played while Tubby Smith was an assistant at Kentucky.
"Once the other three brackets were done, I knew it was Kentucky," Ford said. "There are a lot of emotions that do go into it when you're playing your alma mater."
"It's just a matter of controlling those when you're inside the lines."
Ford should know, having lost to Kentucky in their two meetings during his five seasons at the helm, the first time by 15 and the second, by 29. Overall, Eastern Kentucky is 0-8 against its in-state rival.
Get to know the Colonels
The Colonels head back to the NCAA's after earning the Ohio Valley auto bid by capping a seven-game winning streak by downing Austin Peay. The victory capped a 22-win season, the best in EKU's basketball history. The Colonels won at Dayton and visited Florida, Louisville and Western Kentucky during their non-conference schedule this season.
In the Louisville loss, EKU put together a respectable showing against the Cardinals at Freedom Hall. The Colonels outscored the Cards 17-4 to open the second half and got within 10 with less than 14 minutes remaining in the game. The competitive showings in their non-conference slate helped propel Eastern to a tie for second in the OVC regular season, ending up one game behind Tennessee Tech in a very balanced and competitive league. "It got our season going in the right direction," Ford said of the pre-game scheduling. "I usually don't talk about winning the conference, but with this bunch I believed they were talented enough to do so."
The Colonels live and die by their four horseman in Matt Witt, Michael Haney, Zach Ingles and Alonzo Hird. Witt runs the show with a team-leading 14.1 points per game and 6.4 assists per game. His co-stars are the more effective scorers in Lexington-native Michael Haney (13.5 ppg, 8.3 rpg) and Zach Ingles (11.9 ppg, 39.5 percent from 3), the Colonels' best perimeter threat. Alonzo Hird (9.3 ppg, 8.2 rpg) is perhaps the X-factor, averaging close to a double-double this season and playing particularly well down the stretch. Undersized Jason McLeish (8.8 ppg) and Ben Rushing (6.8 ppg) provide additional scoring and Lexington-native Darnell Dialls provides depth in the front court.
As indicated by every scouting report across the country, if the Colonels shoot the ball well from the field and from behind the arc, they will beat you. As a team this season, EKU shot almost 48 percent from the field. In their seven game winning streak they are shooting over 53% and over 40% from the three point line. If the Wildcats want to take EKU out, they need to play better perimeter defense.
The Colonels have virtually no front court, so making them play inside has been an effective solution in trying to beat them, but many have trouble defending their quickness and speed, as well as containing Witt, an offensive firework and Haney, who at 6-foot-6, finds ways to make plays down low and out-rebound opponents.
If the ‘Cats wish to be successful on Thursday, Randolph Morris and a host of bigger and stronger front court players have got to utillize their strength and size against an inferior unit. If they don't and the Wildcats are content with trying to counter the Colonels on the outside, the Wildcats could be in for a rude awakening.