GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP)Bryce Hopkins could almost feel it coming, long before the NCAA Tournament selection committee had unveiled its 68-team bracket.
The Providence star just knew the Friars’ path would start with Kentucky – the place where he started his college career before deciding to transfer.
He wasn’t alone. Pittsburgh forward Blake Hinson got his own such date, facing the Iowa State team he left behind to help spark the Panthers’ revival.
Fate? Fitting? Either way, a quirk of the bracket has two reunions taking place Friday under the same Greensboro Coliseum roof but in different regions – both featuring players who are leading their new teams in scoring. The scenario could become much more common in the transfer-portal era, with freer player movement evolving into de facto free agency.
“It’s interesting, I don’t think young people are as emotional about this stuff as we maybe adults are,” Pittsburgh coach Jeff Capel said. “They’re able to move on very, very quickly and turn the page.”
The tournament has already produced one such matchup: Arizona State’s Desmond Cambridge Jr. scored 17 points in a First Four win over Nevada on Wednesday night.
Now Hopkins and Hinson will get theirs. Hinson is first when his 11th-seeded Panthers face the sixth-seeded Cyclones in the Midwest Region. Hopkins’ 11th-seeded Friars follow, facing the sixth-seeded Wildcats in the East.
“I’m not trying to go out and prove anything to them,” Hopkins said. “I’m just want to go out and put my team in the best position to win. People are saying it’s a revenge game – I’m not looking at it like that. I’m just trying to go out and move to the next round.”
Maybe so. The vibe was certainly different in how Hopkins and Hinson talked – or didn’t – about reconnecting with their former programs.
Hinson, a 6-foot-7 fifth-year junior, is averaging 15.5 points and 6.1 rebounds for Pittsburgh, mixing an outside-shooting stroke (38.8% from 3-point range) with a sturdy 235-pound frame. He helped Pitt win its First Four game against Mississippi State to reach this matchup, but had little to say about it.
“I’m just ready to play my next game in March Madness,” he said, “and I’m focused on winning.”
Multiple reporters tried follow-up questions, only to be met with terse or one-word responses.
“I’d rather not say,” Hinson said flatly when asked why he left Iowa State.
Hinson, a 6-foot-7 forward and a fifth-year junior, was a two-sport athlete who even got a scholarship offer in eighth grade from Florida State to play football before landing at Mississippi. He spent two seasons there and started 59 games before transferring in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. He told The Daytona Beach (Florida) News-Journal at the time that he left Ole Miss in part because the state flag included the Confederate battle emblem.
He sat out the 2020-21 season with a non-COVID medical condition, then left the program in October 2021 after T.J. Otzelberger had replaced coach Steve Prohm.
Otzelberger chalked it up to the coaching change and a “terrific young man” looking for the right fit.
“It’s one of those situations where I think everybody wants to make something out of it,” Otzelberger said. “And at the end, there’s a young man who’s playing really well on an NCAA Tournament team. And then it’s our group that’s playing well also. So everybody came out OK in that situation.”
Hopkins was far chattier about his former school.
The 6-foot-7 wing had arrived as a four-star recruit but found himself buried on the bench, averaging just 2.1 points and 1.4 rebounds in 6.5 minutes per game – including failing to see action in Kentucky’s stunning first-round tournament loss to 15 seed Saint Peter’s. So he left looking for a bigger role.
He found it with Ed Cooley’s Friars. The first-team Associated Press All-Big East pick has averaged 16.1 points and 8.5 rebounds with nine 20-point games this season.
Perhaps that explained why Hopkins couldn’t help but smile during Thursday’s news conference when teammate Ed Croswell mentioned Hopkins had said he “wished he had a fair chance at Kentucky” but he is “at his happy home now.”
Beyond that, Hopkins appears to hold no grudges.
“There were some great players last year and I was a freshman last year and I’m pretty sure coach (John Calipari) felt comfortable playing them because they have that college experience and I didn’t have it,” Hopkins said. “So I don’t fault Coach Cal at all.
“I understand his decision. I thank him for giving me the opportunity to play at Kentucky. I really appreciate it.”
Besides, Hopkins said, he’s still a part of a group text thread with his former Kentucky teammates and said multiple times he was excited to play familiar faces.
The feeling appears to be mutual, a sign that maybe Capel is right about players being quick to move on.
Then again, they have to be in these rapidly changing times for the sport.
“It’ll be good,” said Kentucky big man Oscar Tshiebwe, last season’s AP national player of the year and a two-time All-American. “That’s my boy. Good player, good kid.
“I miss him a little bit because he was kind of like my best friend, too, on the team. … I’m just excited to see what he’s doing and to play with him, too.”
Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at https://twitter.com/aaronbeardap
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