LEXINGTON, Ky (KT) — Kentucky’s attitude won’t change going into the NCAA Tournament despite losing to Tennessee in the Southeastern Conference semifinals.
“I think they’re in a great frame of mind,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “They’ve been that way. They’re a young team, a lot of freshmen and even the veteran players have not been in this situation. PJ (Washington) has and he was a significant player. Look, we’re as ready as we can be.”
Calipari and the Wildcats, the No. 2 seed in the Midwest Region, will take on Abilene Christian in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament Thursday night in Jacksonville, Florida. Kentucky (27-6) will be making its 58th appearance in the tourney, while the opposing Wildcats made the field for the first time in school history.
Calipari hopes his team is empowered enough to make a deep run in the tournament. The Wildcats were up by eight with less than three minutes remaining against the Volunteers before faltering down the stretch in Nashville last weekend.
“I wish we were a little more empowered than we are, but they’re starting to understand. You’ve just got to play to the training and play to 40 minutes,” he said. “It’s not the opponent, it’s not the tournament. How do we train and what are we trying to do and how are we trying to play? I just keep coming back to play to the training.”
Calipari said the Wildcats are capable of becoming more empowered and said his team has “done it at times.”
“I’ve watched Ashton (Hagans) at times do it,” the Kentucky coach said. “I’ve watched PJ (Washington) take hold of the team. Reid (Travis) has done it at times. It’s still not enough of that and now it’s time. Look, we’re only running these two or three things. Go play. I keep convincing them that we don’t run plays. We’re running an action to get you started and then play. That becomes a little more random and a little more of an empowerment to the team.”
Calipari said the league schedule gave the Wildcats the experience necessary to succeed in the one-and-done portion of the postseason. Overall, seven teams from the Southeastern Conference made the field.
“The great thing that’s happened in our league right now, everybody is playing kind of different,” he said. “ It’s not like everybody plays the same way. Whether you get a zone team, a 1-3-1 team, 2-3 team, a team that plays man, a team that grabs and holds and plays physical, a team that shoots 3’s, a team that’s trying – I mean you face it all in our league. I think it’s going to help all of our teams going forward. So many games were decided in the last minute. There wasn’t a whole lot of separation from one to nine. I mean, literally, there wasn’t.”
Tennessee coach Rick Barnes, whose team is the No. 2 seed in the South Region, said it will take talent and focus to succeed in the Big Dance.
“You have to have talent (and) I think the fact that you stay focused on what got you there — You don't go away from it (and) you have to enjoy it,” he said. “There are times that I think in the past, especially when I was a young coach, I probably compounded the pressure of the tournament by the way we approached it.
“I have learned you have to go after it just like you would get ready for the SEC Tournament. Hope we get our legs right under us and go back at it again. At some point in time, if you really get deep into it, luck comes into it at some point of time too. But you continue to do what has gotten you there."
Like Calipari, the Tennessee coach is happy his team won’t have to play three games in a 36-hour period like his team endured in the SEC Tournament last weekend in Nashville.
“(The) Kentucky game was like a national championship game,” he recalled. “The second half of that game was brutally physical, and it was a hard-fought game, and then you have to turn around and play less than 19 hours later. It's tough, and we're not going to have to do that anymore.”
Gametracker: Kentucky vs. Abilene Christian, 7:10 p.m., Thursday. TV/Radio: CBS, UK Radio Network
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter @keithtaylor21.