Instead of the foremost topic of conversation being Kentucky’s first-round exit against Saint Peter’s last season, the chatter now revolves around the Wildcats transfer who is Providence’s star player.
Bryce Hopkins will have the opportunity to get the best form of revenge when he leads the 11th-seeded Friars against the sixth-seeded Wildcats on Friday night in first-round NCAA Tournament play at the East Region in Greensboro, N.C.
“I can’t wait to prepare for them and play them,” Hopkins said. “I’ll say hello after the game, but before the game, I’m gonna be locked in.”
Hopkins is averaging 16.1 points and 8.5 rebounds and earned first-team All-Big East honors in his first season with the Friars (21-11).
His freshman campaign at Kentucky last season wasn’t productive as he averaged just 2.1 points and 1.4 rebounds in 28 games. He played just 6.5 minutes per game.
Coach John Calipari of the Wildcats (21-11) professed that there are no hard feelings on his end.
“Bryce is such a great kid and he’s a terrific basketball player, and he had an unbelievable year for them,” Calipari said. “So, the guys smiled, the guys that knew him. We all like him, a player out there that we enjoy being around. He is a wonderful person, and so is his family.”
Forward Lance Ware is one of the many Kentucky players who can’t wait to see Hopkins.
“Yeah, you know even though he transferred he still has the bond with us,” Ware said. “You know that’s our brother for life and obviously he had a really good year. I’m a fan of him and the things he is doing at Providence and I’m happy for him.”
Hopkins said the biggest challenge of playing the Wildcats is shutting down big man Oscar Tshiebwe, who won national player of the year honors last season and is averaging 16.5 points and 13.1 rebounds this season.
“We’re going to try our best to take away their primaries, come out with that (win),” Hopkins said. “They’re going to be playing hard, we’re going to have to box Oscar out, and go from there.”
Said Friars coach Ed Cooley: “It’s Divine Providence that this matchup was made for television for CBS primetime. It’s going to be a great, great game and hopefully he plays well.”
Providence has dropped four of its last five games, including setbacks of 18 and 24 points. Last season, the Friars reached the Sweet 16 before losing to eventual national champion Kansas.
The Friars are 0-3 all-time against the Wildcats.
Kentucky doesn’t need reminding of how last year’s first-round game went and not just because it was the first opening-round exit of Calipari’s tenure at the school.
The second-seeded Wildcats were outclassed by No. 15 seed Saint Peter’s, which later reached the Elite Eight with one of the most electrifying long-shot runs in NCAA Tournament history.
This season also wasn’t the smoothest as Kentucky was 16-9 after a 75-68 road loss to Georgia on Feb. 11 before winning five of its past seven games.
“I think that we have players on the team that love the game and know that even though the season’s winding to an end that it was a long season and we still had time,” Ware said of the turnaround. “It was just weeks ago when they said that we wouldn’t even be in the tournament or that we lost some tough games.”
Calipari said it is possible that guard Sahvir Wheeler (ankle and tailbone injuries) could play Friday. He has missed the past nine games.
The winner of this game will face either third-seeded Kansas State or 14th-seeded Montana State in the second round on Sunday.
–Field Level Media