Five NCAA Tournament storylines that will have an effect on Kentucky basketball

The Kentucky Wildcats will have plenty to occupy themselves with this week without looking around at other parts of the NCAA Tournament bracket.

UK is still dealing with injuries going into its first-round game against Providence on Friday night, and the Cats are in search of their first March Madness victory in four years following a canceled tournament in 2020, an abysmal season in 2020-2021, and the shocking end to the 2021-22 campaign, which concluded with that upset loss to 15-seeded Saint Peter’s.

While the Wildcats themselves remain locked in on the Friars and their small corner of the East Regional, there are plenty of other storylines throughout the bracket that Kentucky basketball fans will probably be keeping an eye on.

Rodney Terry and the Texas job

When Texas let head coach Chris Beard go in the middle of the season, John Calipari was immediately linked to the Longhorns’ opening. The outside reasoning was simple: Calipari is in his 14th season at Kentucky, with no Final Four trips since 2015, a testy fan base, and trending toward a third straight disappointing season (relative to expectations). Texas, meanwhile, is one of only a handful of programs — from a stature and resources perspective — that could possibly lure Calipari from Lexington and have the means to match his current situation.

More than two months after Beard’s firing, acting head coach Rodney Terry has led the Longhorns to a Big 12 Tournament title, a 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and a No. 5 ranking in the final AP Top 25 poll, matching the best finish in the program’s history. Texas is also a trendy pick to make its first Final Four in two decades (and just its second in more than 75 years). And Terry clearly has the backing of the current Texas players.

Still, he hasn’t been given the job permanently.

Texas interim coach Rodney Terry dives into a pile of players celebrating the Big 12 Championship after Saturday’s win against Kansas. William Purnell USA TODAY Sports

Texas Athletics Director Chris Del Conte and the powers that be in Austin have had ample opportunity to remove the interim tag from Terry’s title, yet it hasn’t happened. And while Terry could still be announced as the permanent Texas head coach at any moment, every day that passes without such news will lead to speculation that the Longhorns plan to look outside the program.

The buzz in college basketball circles has been that Texas wants to make a splashy hire, and nothing would be splashier than pursuing Calipari, the Hall of Fame coach with a national title under his belt and the country’s No. 1 recruiting class lined up for next season.

Unless something gets announced in the next couple of days, it looks like Terry is going to have to force Texas’ hand with a deep NCAA Tournament run. And until the job situation in Austin gets fully settled, Calipari’s name is going to continue to be linked to the opening, whether the possibility has any legs or not.

Texas faces 15-seeded Colgate at 7:25 p.m. Thursday on TBS.

Bryce Hopkins vs. Kentucky

It was bad enough when Bryce Hopkins, a promising young player who Kentucky’s coaches were hoping would stick around and do great things for the Wildcats, left Lexington after just one season. It looked worse when the 6-foot-7 forward hit the ground running at Providence and blossomed into one of the best players in the Big East right off the bat.

Now how tough would it be if Kentucky loses in the first round of the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive year, and Hopkins is the primary reason that the Cats get bounced?

There’s a real possibility of that.

Hopkins is Providence’s leading scorer and rebounder, emerging as a possible NBA Draft pick in year one with the Friars after playing very little in year one at Kentucky.

Situations like this will happen more and more as the “transfer era” progresses and players in Hopkins’ position are met with opportunities to move to other major programs and find larger roles relatively quickly. But just because it might be more common in the future doesn’t make this instance any easier for Calipari and the Cats, who wanted Hopkins to stick around in Lexington last offseason but couldn’t make it happen.

Losing him to another school was already a tough beat. Losing to him in March Madness would be a whole lot tougher. And since Calipari is almost certain to face similar transfer-or-stay situations with little-used players over the next few years — starting with this coming offseason — the optics of Hopkins beating the Cats on Friday night would be a bad happening for UK.

The Scheyer era at Duke

One season is too soon to judge what kind of coach Jon Scheyer will be at Duke, where he’s replacing five-time national champion Mike Krzyzewski, one of the greatest college basketball coaches of all time.

But Scheyer is off to a respectable start on the court, going into his first NCAA Tournament with a 26-8 record, a 5 seed and the No. 12 spot in the final AP Top 25 rankings. He’s also made it clear that the Blue Devils will remain a major force on the recruiting trail.

Once Coach K fully embraced Calipari’s one-and-done model about a decade ago, Duke and Kentucky became the clear recruiting powers in college basketball, and no one else was really close on a consistent basis. The thinking when Krzyzewski stepped down was that Duke might take a step back with its success on the trail. That didn’t happen.

In the 2022 cycle, the Blue Devils landed the nation’s No. 1 class yet again, and all of those prospects committed to Duke knowing that Scheyer — not Krzyzewski — would be their head coach. Duke has the No. 2 class for next season, trailing only Kentucky.

Not that UK fans need any added incentive to root against the Blue Devils, especially this time of year, but it stands to reason that any Duke losses on the court could very well turn into Kentucky victories down the line. If Scheyer can achieve sustained success in March over the first few years of his tenure, the Duke brand won’t be taking a dip anytime soon.

This NCAA Tournament will be his first chance to make a postseason impression on the next wave of prospects. The Blue Devils tip things off against Oral Roberts at 7:10 p.m. Thursday on CBS, and a possible second-round matchup with Tennessee could be next on the schedule.

Rick Pitino coached at Kentucky from 1989-97 and Louisville from 2001-17. He’s currently in his third season at Iona. Jonathan Palmer Herald-Leader

Rick Pitino’s next move

This won’t have much, if any, impact on the future of Kentucky’s program, but Rick Pitino’s place in college basketball is certain to be an interesting follow over the next few days.

Pitino, who lost his job at Louisville six years ago amid a national recruiting scandal, resurfaced as the head coach at Iona in 2020 and has the Gaels in the NCAA Tournament for the second time in his three seasons there. It sounds like this will be his last season in charge of Iona, and a return to big-time college basketball could be coming soon.

Last week, the Georgetown Hoyas parted ways with program legend Patrick Ewing after six seasons as head coach. Pitino was immediately bandied about as a possible front-runner for that job. A day later, St. John’s — another former Big East power fallen on hard times — fired head coach Mike Anderson, and the scuttlebutt in college basketball circles has been that that’s the job Pitino, who turns 71 in September, truly covets as his next (and possibly final) move as a head coach.

Nothing is likely to be announced until Iona plays its final game of the season, but expect some movement to come pretty quickly after that.

Iona plays 4-seeded UConn at 4:30 p.m. Friday on TBS.

SEC basketball outlook

Once Selection Sunday was finished and the full NCAA Tournament bracket had been revealed, the strength of the Southeastern Conference was on full display for the rest of the country to see.

Eight SEC teams made the 2023 NCAA Tournament field, tying the league record and also tying the Big Ten for the most teams in this year’s March Madness. The SEC’s strength in numbers is the latest sign of the dedication of resources that the traditionally football-first conference has put into basketball over the past several years.

Alabama earned the tournament’s top overall seed — nabbing a 1 seed for the first time in program history — and Tennessee (4 seed), Kentucky (6 seed), Missouri (7 seed), Texas A&M (7 seed), Arkansas (8 seed), Auburn (9 seed) and Mississippi State (11 seed) also made the 68-team field.

John Calipari, who has been lobbying for the SEC and its member schools to pay more attention to men’s basketball basically since the day he arrived in Lexington, was clearly pleased by Selection Sunday’s good fortunes.

“You got terrific coaches. You got great facilities. You got commitments to basketball that wasn’t there,” he said after the CBS selection show. “And now all the sudden you got a bunch of teams that — it wasn’t what it was when I walked in here, where there were five or six teams that were practicing at the women’s gym. And they were flying commercial everywhere, including recruiting. That ain’t — no, we’re all on that level, and it’s great. It’s great.

“I’ve been in leagues where you had to win every game. And if you lost one game in your league, you’re done. Now, think about it: eight teams in. And not only eight teams in. Eight teams have a chance to win the national title. That’s the kind of league you want to be in.”

Calipari then joked that he’d “like more separation” at the top of the standings for his Wildcats — which was often the case in his early tenure at UK — but promised that Kentucky would still “get the best players” and compete for league titles.

The SEC will also add Texas (a 2 seed in this year’s NCAA Tournament) and Oklahoma for the 2024-25 season. What the league does in this postseason will be worth watching, and the outlook for the future of SEC basketball appears very bright indeed.

SEC teams in NCAA Tournament

Tuesday: (11) Mississippi State vs. (11) Pittsburgh — 9:10 p.m. on truTV

Thursday: (7) Missouri vs. (10) Utah State — 1:40 p.m. on TNT

Thursday: (1) Alabama vs. 16-seed play-in winner — 2:45 p.m. on CBS

Thursday: (8) Arkansas vs. (9) Illinois — 4:30 p.m. on TBS

Thursday: (9) Auburn vs. (8) Iowa — 6:50 p.m. on TNT

Thursday: (4) Tennessee vs. (13) Louisiana— 9:40 p.m. on CBS

Thursday: (7) Texas A&M vs. (10) Penn State — 9:55 p.m. on TBS

Friday: (6) Kentucky vs. (11) Providence — 7:10 pm on CBS


No. 6 Kentucky vs. No. 11 Providence

What: NCAA Tournament first round

Where: Greensboro Coliseum in Greensboro, North Carolina.

When: 7:10 p.m.


Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1

Records: Kentucky 21-11, Providence 21-11

Series: Kentucky leads 3-0

Last meeting: Kentucky won 58-38 on Nov. 30, 2014, in Lexington

This story was originally published March 14, 2023, 7:00 AM.

Ben Roberts is the University of Kentucky men’s basketball beat writer for the Lexington Herald-Leader. He has previously specialized in UK basketball recruiting coverage and created and maintained the Next Cats blog. He is a Franklin County native and first joined the Herald-Leader in 2006.
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