Kentucky will play in the tournament for the 16th consecutive season. "It is always exciting to be part of the NCAA tournament," said coach Tubby Smith, "we feel very good about participating in it and certainly we know that Villanova is a great program. (Head coach Jay) Wright has done a great job there over the years and they have some talent on their team. We are looking forward to going to Chicago. It is a place that a lot of our fans can easily get to."
Kentucky has played 14 total games against the NCAA Tournament field, a fact that may provide the team some confidence, "I think it will help us a lot," Smith said, "Our kids are very confident about who we have played. The games that we lost are games that we lost but some of those games are games we could have won and probably should have won in many cases but we didn't and this is another opportunity for us to bounce back and prove that we can beat anybody, especially Villanova."
Villanova, (22-10) finished tied for 7th in the Big East Conference with a 9-7 record, identical to Kentucky's (21-11) record in the SEC. And like Kentucky, Villanova also dropped out of its conference tournament in the second round. Their loss came against the 9th ranked Georgetown Hoyas, 62-57.
This will be the 7th meeting between Villanova and Kentucky. Kentucky currently hold a 5-1 all-time edge against the Philadelphia version of the Wildcats. The last time the two clubs met was in coach Tubby Smith's first season as the Wildcats coach. Kentucky won that game on the road 79-63.
The last time Kentucky and Villanova faced off in the NCAA Tournament, however, Kentucky did not fare as well. That was back in 1988 when the team was coached by Eddie Sutton and Rex Chapman was lighting up the scoreboard. Villanova beat UK 80-74 despite Rex Chapman dropping in 30 points.
Despite similar records, Villanova heads into this game with a little more momentum that does Kentucky. Nova has won four of its last five and eight of its last 11 ball games. They hold a 2-5 record against ranked opponents.
They are led by 6-foot-7 senior Curtis Sumpter, who averages 17.3 points per game and 7.2 rebounds. Sumpter has played well all season but has been particularly strong down the stretch. He has two consecutive "double-doubles" in the final two regular season games (both wins) against UCONN and Syracuse, and dropped in 25 points against Depaul in the opening round of the Big East Tournament. One weakness in Sumpter's game has been his propensity to get into foul trouble. The Brooklyn native has committed four or five fouls in almost half of Villanova's games.
For Kentucky to win, junior big man Randolph Morris will have to continue his outstanding play from the SEC Tournament. "Randolph had a good year; he played well for us all year long and he stepped up at the right time of the season," said Smith, "I thought he played well against Florida and he played well in the SEC Tournament by putting together back-to-back games. When he plays well we are a pretty tough team. I like his attitude and I like his focus and I know he is excited about postseason play and getting to play against a very good Villanova team." "He is a real talent," said Smith, "He's tough to defend as is their guard Michael Nardi."
Michael Nardi is a 6-foot-2 senior guard has averaged 12 points per game and nearly four assists per game. His action has been limited recently due to tonsillitis. He should be back at 100% by Friday. Nardi is a streaky shooter that can absolutely fill it up when he is on his game and if the game comes down to free throws, UK will want to keep Nardi and his 87% shooting average off the line.
6-foot-2 freshman Scottie Reynolds has blossomed into a scoring machine this season. He will enter the Kentucky game averaging 14.5 points per game but has really turned up the heat in the last 7 games where he has had five games where he has scored over 20 points, including a 40-point performance against UCONN where he shot 10-14 from three point range.