Five Observations: Hampton sets up date with Kentucky

DAYTON, Ohio -- The reward might not be all that appealing, but the Hampton Pirates are still alive in the NCAA tournament.

They opened the festivities with a 74-64 win over the Manhattan Jaspers in a matchup of Midwest Region No. 16 seeds, setting up a date with the vaunted Kentucky Wildcats on Thursday.

  • Bigger test looming: There's no question that the degree of difficulty is about to go up exponentially for Hampton, which is well aware of what is waiting for it on Thursday in top-ranked and undefeated Kentucky. But that didn't limit any of the celebration after the Pirates knocked off Manhattan for a win in the NCAA tournament, and it shouldn't diminish the effort they delivered to claim it. Edward Joyner has his team playing aggressively, taking good shots and challenging for every rebound that comes off the rim -- all of which will be absolutely mandatory if the Pirates are going to hang around at all with the Wildcats.

  • Health bears watching: The Pirates would surely prefer to have the walking boot off Dwight Meikle's left ankle, but they have surprisingly fared just fine in the absence of their leading scorer. Hampton followed up its run to the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament title with another impressive offensive outing from the rest of its lineup, with Quinton Chievous and Reginald Johnson both continuing to shoulder the load. The bench also played a crucial role in the latest postseason victory, with Emmanuel Okoroba stepping up and delivering a clutch bucket among his six points to send the Pirates to the next round.

  • Chievous rises to the challenge: The plan initially was for Chievous to face Kentucky with a different program, but after his stint with Tennessee failed to work out, he's clearly found a home with Hampton and a role that suits his versatile game. Chievous was relentless on the glass and a force on the inside despite his size at 6-foot-6. He had a double-double by halftime that sparked the Pirates to their 38-31 lead. He left the game late with an apparent ankle injury of his own, which would obviously make matters tougher moving forward after his 15-point, 13-rebound outing.

  • Johnson won't back down: Reginald Johnson, yet another transfer who has settled in nicely for the Pirates, was fearless with the basketball and clearly comfortable shooting it on a big stage. He didn't finish with the most accurate performance of his career (5-of-16), but after opening with seven early points to set the tone before the first media timeout, he finished with 15, grabbing five rebounds and tallying five assists.

  • Hampton bringing excitable bunch: Hampton's boisterous Basketball Band will at least provide some entertainment on Thursday if Kentucky quickly erases the on-court drama. The blue-and-white striped group was pumped up well before tipoff, chanting, dancing and making its support of the Pirates well known, and perhaps providing a lift for a team that has bounced back from a losing record in the regular season to make some noise in March.