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Colonels open NCAA Tournament against Kansas Friday

ST. LOUIS – After seven years, the Eastern Kentucky University men’s basketball team returns to the NCAA Tournament on Friday, the program’s eighth appearance in the “Big Dance.”

The 15th seeded Colonels (24-9) will face No. 2 seed Kansas (24-9) at 4:10 p.m. ET in the Scottrade Center. The winner of the Eastern Kentucky/Kansas game will play the winner of No. 7 seed New Mexico/No. 10 Stanford on Sunday in St. Louis.

Eastern Kentucky will have a practice, open to the public, at the Scottrade Center from 12:45 to 1:25 p.m. CT on Thursday. Coach Jeff Neubauer and selected players will participate in a press conference from 12:05 to 12:50 p.m. CT.

The EKU men’s basketball program has experienced its best 10-year stretch in school history. This is Eastern’s third NCAA Tournament appearance in the last 10 years. The Colonels have participated in two other postseason tournaments during that time and have posted five 20-win seasons.

Ironically, in all three of Eastern Kentucky’s trips to the NCAA Tournament the last 10 years, the Colonels’ first opponent has been one of the winningest programs in college basketball. It began in 2005 against Kentucky (2,135 victories). In 2007 EKU faced North Carolina (2,113). Friday’s opponent Kansas (2,125) sits in between those two programs.

The Colonels won the program’s sixth Ohio Valley Conference Tournament Championship with a 79-73 win over No. 1 seed Belmont (March 8). Eastern Kentucky’s 24 wins in 2013-14 are the second most wins ever in one season for the program. The school record of 25 was set last year.

With their 24th win of 2013-14 the Colonels set a new record for the winningest 4-year stretch in program history. The previous best was 79 wins from 1944-48. EKU now has 80 victories over the last four seasons.

Since seeding began, EKU has been a No. 9, a No. 15 twice and a No. 16 seed. The Colonels were a 15 seed when they took second seeded Kentucky to the wire in 2005. The No. 15 seed has beaten the No. 2 seed seven times in NCAA Tournament history. Those seven are: Richmond over Syracuse (1991), Santa Clara over Arizona (1993), Coppin St. over South Carolina (1997), Hampton over Iowa St. (2001), Norfolk St. over Missouri (2012), Lehigh over Duke (2012) and Florida Gulf Coast over Georgetown (2013).

Of the seven times a No. 15 seed beat a No. 2 seed, the higher seeded team was held to 70 or fewer points six times. EKU is 16-0 this season when holding opponents under 70 points.

Junior Corey Walden’s MVP performance led Eastern Kentucky to the OVC Tournament title. He averaged 23 points, four steals, four rebounds and two assists over three games. Walden scorched the nets to a tune of 66 percent from the field and made 91 percent at the free throw line.

Senior guard Glenn Cosey leads the team in scoring at 19 points per game. He has already set new EKU records for three-pointers in a game (10) and in a season (110). In just two years with the team, the Flint, Mich., native has moved to 27th on Eastern’s all-time scoring list with 1,060 points.

Tarius Johnson has provided a spark to the Colonels on both ends of the floor. Over the last seven games, the senior “forward” has averaged 16 points, five rebounds, two assists and a steal while shooting 56 percent from the field and 60 percent from three-point range.

Kansas is making its 25th straight trip to the NCAA Tournament, the longest-active streak in the nation. This is the Jayhawks’ 43rd overall appearance. KU hasn’t lost in the first round since falling to No. 14 Bucknell in 2005 and No. 13 Bradley in 2006.

The Jayhawks finished 14-4 in the Big 12, winning their 10th straight conference championship. Kansas’ 7-foot center Joel Embiid (11.2 ppg/8.1 rpg) hasn’t played since suffering a back injury on March 1.

The Colonels have feasted off turnovers this season, ranking second in the nation in turnover margin (+6.3). EKU has committed 208 fewer turnovers and out-scored their opponents by 277 points off turnovers (680-403). Against these five teams -- Illinois, West Virginia, North Carolina State, VCU and Wisconsin -- combined the last two seasons, Eastern Kentucky has committed 12 fewer turnovers (58-70) and has out-scored these teams 70-56 off turnovers.

KU ranks 299 in the same category (-1.9). The Jayhawks turn it over 13.2 times per game.

Kansas has out-rebounded opponents by 7.3 boards per game, 10th best in the nation. EKU has been out-rebounded by 6.1 per game, 9th worst in the country.

KU has allowed opponents to shoot 35.9 percent from three-point range. The Colonels have knocked down 39 percent of their three-pointers (23rd in nation).

In its last NCAA Tournament appearance, after trailing by as many as 27 points in the first half, Eastern Kentucky fought back to within four before falling to top-seeded North Carolina, 86-65, in the opening round of the 2007 dance.

Darnell Dialls led EKU with a season-high 17 points, 13 coming in the second half. Adam Leonard added 14 points and a team-best three steals.

With 8:46 remaining in the first half, the Tar Heels took their largest lead of the period (27) off a Ty Lawson three-point field goal, but Eastern responded with six unanswered points to ignite a 15-4 scoring run. Eastern Kentucky scored the first seven points of the second half, cutting its deficit to single digits (47-39) off a Julian Mascoll fast-break dunk, before a reverse lay-up from Mike Rose got the Colonels within four (48-44) just prior to the first media timeout.

North Carolina responded with seven straight points to keep control of the contest. From there, the Tar Heels put together a few more runs to pull away from the Colonels.

In 2005, Eastern Kentucky took seventh-ranked Kentucky to the wire before losing, 72-64, in the opening round.

Eastern trailed by as many as 16 points, 52-36, before staging a furious comeback that saw the Colonels twice cut the UK margin to five points in the final four minutes of action. However, Kentucky’s inside players, Chuck Hayes and Randolph Morris, took over on both ends of the floor.

Matt Witt led all scorers in the game with 21. Michael Haney had 12 points and eight rebounds while Alonzo Hird tallied his fifth double-double of the season (11 points, 14 rebounds). Eastern out-rebounded Kentucky, 35-31, shot 44.1 percent from the field and 33.3 percent (6-of-18) from three-point land.

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