By the time the two teams tip off at 6:50 p.m. on TBS, every different angle will be explored and dissected, both here and elsewhere. In the meantime, let's talk about what we might see from these two teams on the floor.
After their Cinderella run through the Sun Belt Conference Tournament, the story of the Hilltoppers is familiar to many by now. Struggling to start the season, former head coach Ken McDonald was replaced by Ray Harper in January, the latter getting his first chance as a head coach on the Division I level after winning four national championships in Division II and NAIA. Under Harper, Western Kentucky would undergo an immediate transformation en route to a surprise NCAA trip.
Well, that's not quite it.
WKU was 5-11 when Harper took over, but things didn't happen overnight. The Toppers would lose their first three games under their new head coach and had to win their final two games - including one over conference power Middle Tennessee State, which was 25-4 at the time - to get to 11-18 on the regular season. Western was unquestionably better with Harper at the helm, but still had a record of just 6-7.
The postseason is where Western Kentucky blossomed. The Hilltoppers won four games in as many days to become conference champions, taking down Arkansas-Little Rock and Denver along the way, teams that combined for a 23-9 record in regular-season conference play.
Looking at Western's roster, the thing that jumps off the page is the Toppers' youth. With six freshmen, all of whom play at least 9.6 minutes per game and have started at least two games this year, Western Kentucky ranks as the 335th-most experienced team in the nation and the third-least experienced team - Kentucky and Connecticut are the others - left in the NCAA Tournament according to kenpom.com.
Western Kentucky - with four freshmen among its top five scorers - is an exceptionally young team that has found its stride late in the season, winning seven games in a row. They have a mountain of a task in front of them in trying to knock off the tournament's top overall seed, but they have reason to be confident.
Sparing you from any further preambles, here's a look at how the Wildcats and Hilltoppers match up on offensive and defensive ends. Per usual, expect a heavy dose of Ken Pomeroy's tempo free statistics:
Kentucky offense vs. Western Kentucky defense
Defense has been where Western has made its living during its magical run, and never was that more true than the comeback win over Mississippi Valley State. In spite of committing 28 turnovers and shooting barely 30 percent from the field, the Toppers hung around with defense, then made a run when they went to full-court press, grabbing steals on four straight possessions at one point. The Delta Devils managed just 0.73 points per possession against Western, the third-lowest of the season allowed by WKU.
On the season, Western is an above average defense team, holding opponents to 0.98 points per possession, 110th nationally. Like with Kentucky's defense, Western starts by contesting shots. WKU opponents have an effective field-goal percentage of just 47.1 on the year, nearly two percentage points below the NCAA average. The Hilltoppers also block more than 10 percent of shots attempted against them, which is well above the national average.
Turnovers are a big part of the equation for WKU as well. As they showed against MVSU, the Hilltoppers proved dangerous in their full-court pressure, but they may be hesitant to press a team as athletic as Kentucky.
Kentucky could really do damage with offensive rebounds and free throws. With its lack of size - Teeng Akol is the only Hilltopper taller than 6-foot-8 - Western Kentucky allows offensive rebounds on just over a third of opponents missed shots. Additionally, Western is fairly foul-prone, with seven different players fouling out this season a combined 12 times. Consequently, WKU ranks in the bottom third nationally in defensive free throw rate.
UK will be wise to attack inside with the Hilltoppers' propensity to foul and their lack of size, and Western figures to oblige. All season long, Western has limited opponents' 3-point attempts. Only 26 percent of the field goals attempted against the Hilltoppers have come from beyond the arc, the 13th-lowest total in the NCAA. The Wildcats have attempted single-digit 3-pointers in three different games this season. Don't be shocked if Thursday is the fourth.
Kentucky defense vs. Western Kentucky offense
Western's strengths on offense are the opposite of its strengths on defense. The Hilltoppers struggle mightily shooting and taking care of the ball, ranking 322nd nationally in effective field-goal percentage and 293rd in turnover percentage. Though UK could mix in a little more pressure to try to force some Western mistakes, expect the Wildcats to do what they have most of the season and rely on heavily contesting shots to get the defensive job done. UK is still tops in the NCAA in effective field-goal percentage on defense, which means Western could be in for a particularly bad shooting night.
Even if UK does force a bunch of missed shots, it won't matter if the Cats aren't able to close out defensive possessions with rebounds. Western pursues its misses well, culminating in Tuesday night's 26-offensive-rebound effort against MVSU. If the Hilltoppers are able to hang around with the Wildcats for any extended amount of time, second-chance points will almost certainly play a major role.
Western will also need to get to the foul line against Kentucky, which is something the Hilltoppers have done well this season. UK has been pretty good getting to the line this season, ranking 74th in free-throw rate, but the Toppers have been even better, coming in at 67th. The Cats have done an excellent job playing without fouling, but Western will capitalize if the game is called tight.
Style of play
Based on the reputation of these two teams, you would expect Kentucky would be the team that would want to run at every juncture, but that's not the case. During the second-half of the season, UK has been an increasingly half-court oriented team while Western has played the 49th-fastest tempo in the nation.
Interestingly, John Calipari suggested this week he wants his team to get out and run more. He lamented his team's lack of easy baskets in transition, so don't be surprised if UK picks up the tempo a bit in this one both off turnovers and defensive rebounds. Western likely won't hesitate to try to run with the Cats either.
All told, the Hilltoppers have history against them. A No. 16 seed has never defeated a No. 1, let alone the top No. 1 seed. To keep it close, Western Kentucky will need to knock down shots at a rate they haven't consistently done all season, which isn't unprecedented against the Cats, as Coach Cal is wont to remind us.