LEXINGTON, Ky. --- Kentucky's record 43rd appearance in the NCAA Tournament may wind up being remembered as one of the most intriguing in school history.
The on-again, off-again Wildcats were placed as the No. 4 seed in the East Region on Sunday and pitted against Valparaiso, a No. 12 seed and champion of the Mid-Continent Conference. Their first-round game is scheduled for Thursday at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis. The winner will face either Marquette or Tulsa in the second round. Game times will be announced by CBS on Monday.
Kentucky (20-9) is coming off a disappointing showing in the Southeastern Conference Tournament, losing 70-57 to South Carolina in the quarterfinals, and has dropped three of its last six games headed into the NCAAs.
To make matters worse, the Cats have another distraction on their hands as sophomore guard Gerald Fitch missed the SEC Tournament due to being disciplined for the fourth time this season. It's the latest in the line of nearly a dozen off-court problems for the team this season.
Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said on Sunday that Fitch would be available for the NCAA Tournament, but to what extent remains unknown. And what effect his situation will have on the team's play may be the biggest question mark.
"We need to come together after the tough loss Friday," Smith said. "We'll be ready to play. We're putting our entire focus on Valparaiso.
"St. Louis is a place where our fans can go fairly easily. They were out in force in Atlanta on Friday, and we didn't take care of business, but we still hope they turn out strong again this week. Our players will be refocused and ready to get to work."
"We are extremely excited about the upcoming tournament," said Kentucky senior forward Tayshaun Prince (17 ppg, 6.4 rpg). "We're looking forward to a good matchup with a tough Valparaiso team.
"Personally, this tournament is very special for me because it's my last chance at winning a national championship with Kentucky. We just have to come together now and focus on winning our next six games."
Valparaiso (25-7) looms as potentially the Cats' most dangerous first-round opponent in years. The Crusaders set a school record for wins and storm into the matchup having won 14 of their last 15. They crushed IUPUI 88-55 in the MCC Tournament finals.
The Crusaders also played a pair of national powers competitively this season, losing 74-70 at No. 16 Arizona on Dec. 30 and dropping a 81-73 decision at third-ranked Kansas on Jan. 2.
The Crusaders feature an experienced roster including four seniors and six juniors. They're led by senior Lubos Barton, a 6-foot-8, 229-pound forward. He was the MCC's third-leading scorer (15.1), fourth-leading rebounder (6.7) and finished second in steals (1.8 spg).
Barton also has frontcourt help in 6-11, 230-pound center Raitis Grafs (12.4 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 2.0 bpg). Both players give Valparaiso a European flavor. Barton is from the Czech Republic, while Grafs is a Latvian product. The Crusaders also feature players from Angola, Colombia, Finland and Puerto Rico.
Smith said the Cats must be aware of Valparaiso's desire to shoot from long range. The Crusaders took more 3-pointers this season than any SEC team (761), making 35 percent. Barton was 72-of-190 (38 percent) from behind the arc while Milo Stovall, Stalin Ortiz, Joaquim Gomes and Jared Nuness all shot 37 percent or better.
Valparaiso overcame 20 turnovers against IUPUI by hitting 14 of 23 from long range.
"They can really shoot it from outside," Smith said. "We've got to work on our 3-point defense and be ready to defend their penetration and pitch."