Undefeated Wichita State is the top-seed in the Midwest Regional, but all eyes will be on Kentucky.
Can the Wildcats save a shockingly mediocre season with a deep run?
Everyone is about to find out.
Kentucky enters the Big Dance as the No. 8 seed in the Midwest. It will open the tournament against ninth-seeded Kansas State, with the winner likely getting a shot at the Shockers.
This situation is not what the Wildcats — or anybody else — expected.
For the first time since 1996, Kentucky was ranked No. 1 in the AP preseason poll — ahead of Michigan State, Louisville, Duke and Kansas.
The Wildcats were led by power forward Julius Randle, right, who is expected to be a top-five NBA draft pick.
Kentucky finished 24-10, however, including a 61-60 loss to Florida in the SEC tournament title game Sunday.
Losing to the Gators summed up the Wildcats’ year.
Florida is the top-seeded team in the country and Kentucky took it to the wire. But the ’Cats couldn’t finish and enter the NCAA Tournament with four losses in their last seven games.
Before playing Florida, coach John Calipari told his players they were staring at a No. 8 seed.
“I called eight seed to the team,” Calipari told reporters after the loss. “I said eight and they said, ‘There’s no way.’ I told them, ‘Just watch.’ ”
Said center Dakari Johnson: “We were a little shocked. We thought we were going to get a [higher] seed. But we know we just have to go out there and play. It’s a stacked region, but I think we showed today that we can compete with anybody in the country.”
The Midwest is stacked.
Including its matchup against Kansas State (20-12), Kentucky would face a rugged road to reach the Final Four.
If the Kentucky Wildcats manage to win their opener, Wichita State will probably be waiting. If Kentucky pulls the upset, possible regional opponents include rival Louisville, Michigan and Duke.
No. 1 Wichita State (34-0) vs. No. 16 Texas Southern (18-14)/ Cal Poly (13-19)
At St. Louis | Friday, 5:10 p.m., Ch. 2
Outlook • The Shockers should successfully begin another attempted run to the Final Four, which last year included a stop in Salt Lake. Cal Poly (No. 7) became the lowest seed to win the Big West Conference tournament in its 39-year history.
No. 2 Michigan (25-8) vs. No. 15 Wofford (20-12)
At Milwaukee | Thursday, 5:10 p.m., Ch. 2
Outlook • With Utah Jazz rookie Trey Burke as its point guard, Michigan reached the championship game last year. This season, the Wolverines start the tournament with their highest seed since a Fab Five team in 1993, when they also lost in the finals.
No. 3 Duke (26-8) vs. No. 14 Mercer (26-8)
At Raleigh, N.C. | Friday, 10:15 a.m., Ch. 2
Outlook • After losing to Virginia in the ACC tournament finals, the Blue Devils will play close to home. Meanwhile, little Mercer earned its first tournament bid since 1985 with a win over Florida Gulf Coast in the Atlantic Sun championship game.
No. 4 Louisville (29-5) vs. No. 13 Manhattan (25-7)
At Orlando, Fla. | Thursday, 7:50 p.m., TNT
Outlook • Nearly everyone was shocked the NCAA selection committee’s decision to give coach Rick Pitino and the Cardinals such a low seed. ESPN broadcaster Jay Bilas said the decision “boggles the mind.” Will dangerous Louisville be motivated by the disrespect?
No. 5 St. Louis (26-6) vs. No. 12 North Carolina State (21-13)/Xavier (21-12)
At Orlando, Fla. | Thursday, 5:20 p.m., TNT
Outlook • The late Rick Majerus, who coached Utah to the championship game in 1998, put together the Billikens’ foundation before passing away. Only a late-season slide prevented St. Louis from getting a more advantageous seed.
No. 6 Massachusetts (24-8) vs. No. 11 Iowa (20-12)/Tennessee (21-12)
At Raleigh, N.C. | Friday, 12:45 p.m., Ch. 2
Outlook • UMass returns to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 16 years and appears to be well-positioned for a nice run. A 16-1 start helped the Minutemen overcome a loss to George Washington in the Atlantic-10 tournament quarterfinals.
No. 7 Texas (23-10) vs. No. 10 Arizona State (21-11)
At Milwaukee | Thursday, 7:40 p.m., Ch. 2
Outlook • In another big-name matchup, the Big 12 faces the Pac-12. Texas returns to the tournament after failing to qualify last year. Neither team finished well, with the Longhorns going 3-5 in their final eight games and Arizona State losing three in a row.
No. 8 Kentucky (24-10) vs. No. 9 Kansas State (20-12)
At St. Louis | Friday, 7:40 p.m., Ch. 2
Outlook • Two perennially powerful teams from high-profile conferences collide in the second round. One will gather momentum for a likely Round of 32 matchup with unbeaten Wichita State. The other will be happy the season is finally over.
Midwest Region: What to look for
Top player • Duke’s Jabari Parker is a do-it-all freshman who averages 19.2 points and 8.8 rebounds per game. He’s expected to be a top-three pick in this summer’s NBA draft.
Top team • Wichita State earned its No. 1 seed. The Shockers are the first team to enter the tournament without a loss since UNLV in 1990-91. Senior Cleanthony Early, pictured at right, is their top scorer, but Fred VanVleet is the Missouri Valley Player of the Year.
Best player you don’t know • Manhattan’s George Beamon is a senior guard who averages 19.2 points and 6.6 rebounds per game. He plays his best in big games, which should concern Louisville in the first round.
Sleeper team • Massachusetts. BYU fans remember the Minutemen, who scored a 105-96 victory over the Cougars this season. UMass also defeated Providence and New Mexico during a rugged non-conference schedule, which obviously impressed the selection committee.