John Calipari, Kentucky trying not to listen to ‘easy path’ talk at Sweet 16 | NevadaAppeal.com

John Calipari, Kentucky trying not to listen to ‘easy path’ talk at Sweet 16

By Darrell Moody dmoody@nevadaappeal.com
Players on the Kentucky bench react during the second half of a second-round game against Buffalo in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament Saturday, March 17, 2018, in Boise, Idaho. Kentucky won 95-75. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
APTOPIX NCAA Buffalo Kentucky Basketball

ATLANTA – John Calipari’s biggest fight this week may be off the court.

Many media members are calling the South Regional the Kentucky Invitational. The young, but altra-talented Wildcats are the top remaining seed at No. 5 followed by Nevada at No. 7, Kansas State No. 9 and Loyola of Chicago at No. 11.

Kentucky has won five straight and nine of its last 10. The Wildcats have won their last fuve by an average of 12 points a game.

Much of the talk around Philips Arena is that Kentucky has the easy road to the Elite 8 and Final 4. Calipari said Wednesday afternoon that he doesn’t want his kids drinking that Kool-aid.

“We’re excited to be here still playing,” Calipari said before the game against Kansas State tonight at 6:30 PDT. “My challenge is making sure these kids don’t drink that poison, that poison being we have an easy road. There are no easy roads in this tournament. If they drink that poison, we’ll be done Thursday. If they don’t drink the poison, it’ll be a dogfight on Thursday, and let’s see what happens.

“Buffalo talked about, okay, now they’re supposed to do this and this. I don’t care how the other teams use it. They can use it to their benefit. You can’t — you know, the poison is both ways. If they’re being down on a team or a player, don’t drink it. It’s a one-game thing. Just play and be your best. If you think, oh, they’ve got this, this is going to be easy, you will lose in this tournament. And again, I’ve done this 20-some years, and even more than that probably, I don’t know. But this thing is unpredictable. It’s who’s playing well. If you’re playing well, you advance. If you’re not playing well, guess what; you don’t advance.”

Freshman sensation Kevin Knox agreed with his coach.

“I mean, I don’t think we’ve had an easy path,” he said. “I mean, every game you’ve got to be able to come out and fight. You see a lot of upsets, so there’s a lot of teams coming out and trying to knock you off. I think every game we’ve got to come out and fight for 40 minutes. I don’t think we’ve had an easy path at all so far. Some top seeds got knocked out but we’re not focused about that. We just focused about us and just making sure we go out and fight and just play to win.”

Knox did say that the Wildcats are one confident group right now.

“I think our confidence level right now is as high as it’s been all season,” Knox said. “ We had a really great SEC tournament, we had some momentum coming into the NCAA Tournament. I think we’re playing our best basketball. Everyone is just picking each other up in the locker room, just getting after it in practice, really focusing on the game plan and the walkthroughs. And I think now we’re doing a really good job of just sticking together and playing together on both ends of the basketball court.”

If Kentucky plays to its capabilities, watch out. The Wildcats are long and very athletic. They have eight players 6-7 or better. Four players average double figures with another at 9.4. Knox leads the way at 15.6 a game. It’s a young roster filled with freshmen and sophomores.

The Wildcats went through a four-game losing skid in early February, but won four of their last five to end the regular season, and five straight in the post-season.

“I mean, I would say we just tried to stick with each other as much as possible.,” said Hamidou Diallo. “We’ve all been through adversity this season, and we all know what it feels like. When we lost four in a row, we know many people had turned us against and people had counted us out, so it was a little bit of fuel and a little bit of motivation. And we just ran with it, and we just tried to keep listening to coaches and keep trying to do what we’ve got to do on the court.”

“I feel like if we don’t go through that adversity and that four-game losing streak, we’re not as good as we are right now, and I don’t think we would have won the SEC tournament,” said freshman Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. “Going through adversity teaches you a lot, and we learned from it. We learned from it across the board, all 12 of us, and yeah, we all got better.”

Alexander has progressed throughout the season. Entering today’s contest (Thursday) against Kansas State, he’s averaging 14.4 points and 4.1 rebounds a game.

“I know what I’m capable of, and I know that if I work hard and work as hard as I have, that good things will happen and things like this will, and I’ve just tried to take advantage of the situation,” he said. “At the beginning of the season, I faced a lot of adversity, working as hard as I am. It was a lot on my body, but the transition hasn’t been too hard. I’ve just continued to work at it; work at it and try to do what coach is asking of me, and it’s paid off.”