It’s the NCAA Tournament and here’s Kentucky.

But unlike most years, the Wildcats limp in — metaphorically and literally — as a middle-of-the-pack team that hasn’t won an NCAA Tournament game since 2019.

Coach John Calipari’s seat is undeniably warmer than it was in the 1st 6 years of his UK tenure, when he led the Wildcats to 4 Final Four appearances (with none coming since). But Calipari has pulled off some March surprises before, and while Big Blue Nation might be a little lukewarm now, they’ll be ready by Thursday.

Kentucky finished the season 3rd in the SEC, dropped its SEC Tournament quarterfinal game to Vanderbilt and has a very limited squad. The Wildcats (21-11) lost to Vandy with Cason Wallace visibly limping on an ailing leg and CJ Fredrick looking visibly uncomfortable with a rib injury. Some close to the program have whispered that the Cats will have more benefit from a couple days off than from a deep run in Nashville.

But how will that translate to the Big Dance, where Kentucky drew a 6 seed in the East Region.

Scouting the Providence Friars

How they got here: Providence finished 5th in the Big East and lost its quarterfinal game to UConn in the conference tournament. The 11th-seeded Friars (21-11) nabbed 1 of the last at-large bids and finished the season by losing 4 of their last 5 games.

Providence’s best work was earlier in the season, when it remained competitive in a tough Big East. But veteran coach Ed Cooley has seemed perplexed by his team down the stretch. That said, isn’t every March full of teams that stumble into the tournament and come up smelling like a rose?

Top player: Oh boy. This gets interesting fast. Kentucky fans, you may have heard of forward Bryce Hopkins. A year ago, Hopkins was a Kentucky Wildcat, scoring 60 points for the season off the bench. He did have 1 memorable game, a 13-point, 4-rebound effort against LSU. He then played 7 minutes combined for the rest of the season and transferred to Providence. Hopkins has been quite candid about feeling limited under Calipari and contrasting that with freedom under Cooley, and the sophomore’s 16.1 points and 8.5 boards per game suggest that he’s not lying.

What they do best: Providence rebounds the basketball well and gets to the foul line. At 12.3 offensive rebounds per game, the Friars are 26th in the country in that department. Their 22.1 free-throw attempts per game is 27th-best nationally. Providence is led by Hopkins and 6-8 senior Ed Croswell, who is a rugged rebounder (7.6 boards per game). They don’t shoot a ton of threes, they don’t do anything crazy, but they get on the glass and get to the line.

Best win this season: Providence’s biggest effort was a Dec. 20th win over Marquette. How’d they pull that 1 off? The Friars shot 49 free throws (as opposed to 19 for their guests) and they also outrebounded Marquette, 43-26. Hopkins had 29 points and 23 boards in the 103-98 double-overtime win. Devin Carter and Croswell each added 20 points, and 3 Marquette players fouled out of the game.

Most important thing to know about the Friars: Here’s 2 things — 1, they have more recent NCAA Tournament success than Kentucky, reaching the Sweet 16 as a 4 seed last March before losing by 5 to eventual national champion Kansas. Second, the coach who took Providence to the most recent of its 2 Final Fours? That’d be Rick Pitino in 1987. UK is 3-0 all-time against Providence, with 2 of the meetings being 2010s Calipari vs. Cooley matchups.

Prediction: Kentucky will have to be solid on the backboard on Friday night, but that sounds like Oscar Tshiebwe’s theme song. The good news is that UK — under a surprising amount of pressure — drew a team that comes in not playing particularly well. Hopkins will definitely have something to prove, but UK can weather an ugly 1st half and nab a 72-64 victory.

Beyond the opener

Kentucky faces a potential 2nd-round matchup with Kansas State, and if 1 is truly optimistic, a Sweet 16 matchup with Marquette. Both schools have played spoiler to UK lately, with K-State downing the Wildcats for the 1st time in school history in the 2018 NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16. K-State and coach Jerome Tang has been 1 of the feel-good stories of the season, although it has lost its past 2 games. K-State is led by former Florida Gator Keyontae Johnson.

Marquette bested a great Tubby Smith team in the 2003 Elite Eight with some unknown guy named Dwyane Wade having a breakout game. Marquette is actually 7-7 all-time against UK and this season’s Golden Eagles team shoots almost 50% for the season and is remarkably crisp on offense. It is, however, a little soft on the glass. With 4 double-figure scoring averages, led by Kameron Jones’ 15.0 points per game, Marquette would be a challenging matchup for UK.

Purdue, Tennessee or Duke could be potential Elite Eight matchups, but let’s slow the roll on looking past anybody with Calipari’s current Cats. It will be very much 1 game at a time.