Savoring the moment, relaxed Kentucky doesn't allow its NCAA Tournament history repeat itself
GREENSBORO, NC – Purdue became only the 2nd top-seeded team in the history of the NCAA Tournament to lose its opening round game to a 16 seed on Friday.
It was such a monumental upset that they played the end of the game on the big screen at Greensboro Coliseum, even as Kentucky and Providence were still playing their own competitive 1st-round contest.
The fans, mostly dressed in Wildcat blue, even began chanting FDU! FDU! as the final seconds ticked off the clock in Columbus, Ohio.
But even with all the commotion going on around them, John Calipari and his team were oblivious to it all.
At least that’s Calipari’s story. And he’s sticking to it.
Calipari reacted with surprise when he was asked about the Purdue result at his press conference after the game.
Whether he and the players did or didn’t know doesn’t really matter. His point is that they were too focused on their own task at hand to notice. Or care.
“We’re not watching the games,” the Kentucky coach said. “We’re focused on us and enjoying this moment. … In this tournament, you (have to be) ready. It’s 1 game. I said it, anything can happen.”
That’s a lesson Calipari’s Wildcats learned the hard way a year ago at the hands of St. Peter’s.
And they weren’t about to let it happen again.
They didn’t play their best game against 11th-seeded Providence. In fact, they shot only 25% from the floor in the 2nd half and let the Friars hang around much longer than they should have.
But thanks to the 22-point scoring of Antonio Reeves and Oscar Tshiebwe’s 25 rebounds – the most in an NCAA Tournament game since 1977 – it was good enough for a 61-53 victory.
Warts and all, it was a highly enjoyable night for Kentucky. And not only because the win advances it into Sunday’s 2nd round against either No. 3 Kansas State and No. 14 Montana State.
After the experience of last March, Calipari made it a point of emphasis heading into this tournament to keep his players loose and get them to savor the moment as much as possible with as little pressure as there can be for a Kentucky team this time of the year.
The fact that the Wildcats are seeded only 6th in the East Region has helped temper the usual expectations. Their coach has also done what he can to create a more relaxed atmosphere both on and off the court.
“We’re not like ‘We’re going to win because everybody will be mad if we don’t,’” Calipari said. “We could care less if they’re mad or happy or sad. This is about this group of young people. I want them to enjoy this experience. No one is going to put added things on their shoulders. I won’t let them. I told them, have a ball today. And they did.”
The fun started at the team’s dinner on Thursday. Instead of wearing their headphones, checking their Instagrams and doing their own thing, the players cut up with one another and had fun being together.
That togetherness and joy carried over to the court on Friday.
Even though the shots weren’t falling, especially in the 2nd half, the Wildcats never let it bother them. They continued to play hard, defend with abandon and smile often on their way to a liberating victory.
“It was a big relief, obviously,” said senior forward Jacob Toppin, who took time off from his AT&T commercials to score 18 points. “I knew what this team was capable of so we got the job done. So props to my teammates. We all stuck together. Even when (Providence) made their runs, we didn’t put our heads down. We kept fighting, We did the little things that won us the game.”
Now that the pressure of getting past that 1st game has been lifted, Toppin and his teammates can start setting their sights on the next step in a journey they hope is only just beginning.
But before they do, Calipari planned to give them some time to head back to the team hotel and savor the moment.
“Whoever we play (next) is going to be a really hard game, but we’re not worried about that now,” he said, adding that he told his players to “Go have a great night. Sleep in. We’ll get up tomorrow and figure things out tomorrow.”
The message was clear. It’s easy to take winning for granted when you play for a program that has done it so often.
And Calipari is determined not to let that happen again.
Just 1 more lesson learned from last year’s 1st round disappointment.
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Finally! KY wins a tournament game! Well done to the SEC so far! TN please beat Duke the puke! I’m rooting for the all the SEC get It done! SEC still gets no respect in basketball
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This is quite the fluff piece, but congrats to UK on the win. Good luck in round 2.
Good luck to LS…oh wait.