The South Region parted like the Red Sea. Now, it’s up to John Calipari to act as Moses in leading the Israelites, er Kentucky, to the Promised Land. I mean, the Final Four.

OK, maybe that’s a bit too biblical of a reference for a college basketball tournament (though probably not too far-fetched for Kentucky fans).

Persecution didn’t fuel Kentucky to turn its season around and suddenly become the overwhelming favorite to be the last team standing in the upset-loaded South Region. It took a mindset and a belief. Calipari might not have thought his team would ever reach that point, but he kept tweaking until he found the right combination. Based on its 9 wins in its past 10 games, Kentucky has the right combination to take that all-important next step on its journey.

But the belief that anyone parted the Red Sea cannot be the belief of his team. The assumption that they simply have to show up to Atlanta and in order to walk through a cleared path to the Final Four would be a death sentence for the Wildcats’ run.

The challenge ahead is greater than the one in their rearview mirror. It’s up to Calipari to make his team recognize that.

Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

A coach, especially one with plenty of experience with uberly-talented teams like Calipari, probably preached the “forget about their seed” speech countless times. So what makes this year’s message different?

Well, consider what it took Kentucky to get here. As of this time a couple weeks ago, nobody was really sure whether the Wildcats had it figured out. A mediocre 10-8 conference record was largely the product of Calipari’s 5-star freshman lineup not willing to buy in. They didn’t play off each other for offense and they didn’t use their freakish athleticism as a strength on defense.

Calipari basically spent the entire season shouting, “YOU’RE NOT GOOD ENOUGH TO GET BY ON YOUR TALENT,” but for too much of 2017-18, that message fell on deaf ears. If that message falls on deaf ears this weekend and Kentucky reverts to its midseason self, it’ll be a frustrating trip back to Lexington.

It doesn’t matter that Kentucky is a 6-point favorite against Kansas State on Thursday night. In Calipari’s perfect world, his team won’t pay attention to the fact that Kansas State had to grind out a win against historic No. 16-seed UMBC just to reach the Sweet 16.

Fortunately for Calipari, this bizarro NCAA Tournament should have already preach his message for him. Seeds mean squat. Zilch. Zip. Nada. Throw them out the window.

UMBC showed America that, and so did teams like Florida State, Loyola-Chicago, Nevada, Syracuse and Texas A&M, all of whom knocked off top-3 seeds in the second round. The average seed left is 5.3, which is the highest for a Sweet 16 since 2000. I mean, goodness. Kentucky just watched the top 4 seeds in its region — which Calipari himself said was loaded — lose to teams seeded between 7-16.

There should be no reason that Kentucky shows up against Kansas State with anything less than that “us-against-the-world” attitude it had for the past couple weeks. It wasn’t long ago that it looked like the Wildcats had turned the corner with that 4-game winning streak late in the regular season. What happened when Kentucky got overconfident? Florida ran Calipari’s team out of the gym.

Kentucky has to show up to the Sweet 16 with the mindset that it had in Idaho. The Wildcats worked for high-possession shots and didn’t settle for contested jumpers. They pushed the tempo and didn’t get out of control. They rotated on defense and didn’t get caught taking possessions off.

That happened despite the fact that it was Buffalo who showed up Saturday and not Arizona. That needs to happen Thursday despite the fact that it will be Kansas State who shows up and not Virginia.

Calipari will have to endure everyone and their mother talking about how Kentucky is the favorite to win the region, and possibly even win a national title. His ability to humble his team will determine if that comes to fruition. Calipari already started that process in the postgame press conference after the Buffalo win.

“As a team, the biggest thing is everyone is connected. Everyone is for each other. And we still have a couple of guys that aren’t quite the servant leaders that they need to be,” Calipari said. “Like I’m playing for everyone else. Well, if I’ve got a whole team of guys doing that, ‘I’m not playing for me, I’m playing for everybody else,’ that’s when this thing takes off.

“We’re getting closer, but that’s probably the one thing I hope.”

Calipari has been around long enough to know that beating a couple of double-digit seeds en route to a Sweet 16 berth isn’t the standard in Lexington. If anything, it’s the bare minimum. That’s why the 2017-18 season felt like an inevitable disappointment. But obviously that narrative has shifted.

Kentucky is suddenly back in the driver’s seat. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is playing like the best point guard in America, Kevin Knox is knocking down shots within the flow of the offense and Hamidou Diallo is defending like every possession could be his last. The pieces are finally in place, which probably has many fans breathing a sigh of relief.

But now is not the time for Calipari’s squad to exhale. Now is the time for his team to be confident in the mindset that got it to this point.

After Saturday’s win, both Diallo and Gilgeous-Alexander’s first comments were about how Kentucky enjoyed proving people wrong. Because of the madness that unfolded in the tournament’s first weekend, Kentucky is running out of people to prove wrong. Calipari won’t be able to draw up the same “nobody believes in you” narrative.

Calipari’s message to his team should be simple.

He isn’t Moses, and the South Region didn’t part like the Red Sea. But if the young Cats practice what Calipari preaches, they can reach the Promised Land.

I mean, the Final Four.

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