The field is set for the 2019 Midwest Regional at Sprint Center
When the NCAA Tournament bracket was revealed, the Midwest Regional in Kansas City held the possibility of tradition-rich programs mixed with local flavor.
The event at Sprint Center that begins with Friday’s semifinal games got some of that.
Advancing to the Sweet 16 are the top three seeds, North Carolina, Kentucky and Houston. They’ll be joined by the fifth-seed Auburn.
The failure of Kansas and Iowa State to reach Kansas City — they were the fourth and sixth seeds — removes a local favorite and probably a major ticket battle among their fans and those of the other teams, especially Kentucky.
But coming to Sprint Center are four programs ranked in the top 15. There are no Cinderella stories here, just terrific basketball teams.
Friday, the Tar Heels meet Auburn at 6:29 p.m., and Kentucky-Houston will be played 30 minutes after the first game’s conclusion. The winners meet Sunday with a trip to the Final Four in Minneapolis on the line.
Top-seed North Carolina (29-6) tied Virginia for the ACC regular-season championship and defeated Iona and Washington in the first two rounds, and the program is familiar with Sprint Center. The Tar Heels fell to Kansas in a 2013 NCAA Tournament second round game and won the 2015 CBE Hall of Fame Classic.
Oh, and coach Roy Williams knows a little about the area. In 15 seasons as Kansas’ head coach, his teams played in Kansas City every year in the Big Eight/12, NCAA or regular-season tournaments.
Williams had a bit of Kansas City flashback on Sunday after the Washington victory when referenced a former Chiefs coach.
“I told the guys Marty Schottenheimer always talked about enjoying the wins until midnight,” Williams said.
Kentucky (29-6), the No. 2 seed, oddly has no familiarity with Kansas City when it comes to the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats have played the most games in tournament history (179) and Kansas City has been the site of the most NCAA games (131).
But this will be the first NCAA trip here for Kentucky, which defeated Abilene Christian and Wofford in the first two rounds. The Wildcats won those games without star PJ Washington, who wore a boot over the weekend to protect a foot strain.
With Sunday’s second-round victory over Ohio State, Houston set a school record for victories, topping the 1984 Hakeem Olajuwon-led team that played for the national championship.
After more than 20 years in the college game at Washington State, Oklahoma and Indiana, coach Kelvin Sampson served as an NBA assistant until 2014. He’s rejuvenated Houston, playing in the NCAA Tournament for a second straight year after missing the event in 24 of the previous 25 years.
Fifth-seeded Auburn (28-9) was one of the most impressive winners of the second round. The Tigers jumped ahead of Kansas by 26 points at halftime and held on for a 14-point victory, one game after surviving a scare from New Mexico State.
A year earlier, Auburn lost its second round game to Clemson by 31 points.
“We’re playing really good basketball,” Tigers coach Bruce Pearl said. “We were in the best position that the program could possibly be in to win that (Kansas) game … I feel like we’re in a really good position right now to make history.”