Mar 23, 2013 6:37 PM
Hanging in front of the Kentucky locker room is a picture of the Final Four logo with a clock next to it.
Ever since the first day of practice back in early October, that clock has been counting down the days and minutes until the Final Four in New Orleans. Now with the NCAA tournament here, the second-seeded Wildcats hope to be in Louisiana at their first Final Four when the clock reaches zero.
Kentucky will open up its NCAA tournament Sunday against No. 15 Navy. Seventh-seed Dayton will play No. 10 St. John's in the second game.
"You have no chance of winning the national championship if you don't get to the Final Four," Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said. "We're focused on our region and trying to advance through it and win our four games."
The Wildcats made the regional final last season before falling to Connecticut. The two teams potentially could meet again in the Bridgeport final.
Kentucky (27-5), which is coming off a disappointing loss in the SEC title games to Texas A&M, has made the NCAA tournament four straight seasons and matched its best seeding.
"It's very exciting to have an opportunity to be a number 2 seed," Kentucky senior A'dia Mathies said. "Our ultimate goal is to go to the Final Four and it's achievable."
The Midshipmen (21-11) are making their third straight trip to the NCAA tournament after winning the Patriot League tournament. Navy lost to Maryland last season and DePaul the year before.
"The big thing we learned is coming in confident and just have some fun out there," junior center Jade Geif said. "We're going to miss shots and they're going to make shots. We know it's a 15 vs. 2 seed, we'll do what we can."
No 15 seed has ever won an NCAA tournament game and Navy is trying to buck a losing trend by the Patriot League which has dropped its past 20 games in the tournament since Holy Cross knocked off Maryland in 1991.
That doesn't deter the Mids coach Stefanie Pemper was an assistant for Harvard when the Crimson pulled off the first and only upset by a 16 seed over No. 1 Stanford in 1998.
"It's going to be a big challenge," Pemper said. "We'll get a really good breakfast and get our rest and just dig down. The NCAA tournament is the most inspiring arena to play in as an athlete. They'll have much harder physical challenges ahead in their lives."
While Navy has won its conference tournament the past three seasons, Dayton (27-2) has made the NCAA tournament the past four seasons - earning an at-large bid in three of them. It shows how far the Flyers have come in the past few seasons.
"We're not just happy being here anymore," Dayton coach Jim Jabir said. "It's the highest seed we ever had. We want to play on Tuesday, very, very badly. Just getting that first game in and going home is not enough for this team. To be a national program we need to get out of the first weekend and that's a goal."
It's been a record season for Dayton as the Flyers won their first Atlantic 10 regular season title before falling to Saint Joseph's in the conference tournament semifinals. The team has already surpassed the school record for wins and is in its fourth straight NCAA tournament.
Not bad for a squad that lost a lot to graduation last year and has the sixth youngest roster in the country. The Flyers used a balanced offense that features four different players averaging in double figures.
"The six returners that we had coming back got together and wanted this not be a rebuilding year," senior Sam MacKay said.
While the Flyers' roster had huge turnover, the Red Storm return most of their team from last season's regional semifinal run. The biggest change was at head coach when assistant Joe Tartamella took over for Kim Barnes Arico, who left for Michigan.
The Red Storm (18-12) struggled in the early part of the season, losing three games in the final possession before turning it around with victories in eight of their last 10 games. The Red Storm have reached the past four NCAAs after only making it four times total before their current run.
"It's extra gratifying," Tartamella said. "The seniors get to go out playing in four straight tournaments. Our goal has always been consistency."