The do-or-die games of March continue Thursday when the Kentucky Wildcats face the Kansas State Wildcats.
Win, and UK will be in the Elite Eight and one step closer to advancing to the Final Four for the fifth time under John Calipari.
Lose, and it will end what’s been a magical postseason for the young Cats, who’ve won every SEC and NCAA Tournament game thus far.
While UK has been made out to be the runaway favorite against K-State, John Calipari knows that type of talk is “poison” for his players. It’s the same kind of poison teams like Virginia, Arizona, Cincinnati and Tennessee probably had at least a little of before losing in the first weekend of NCAA play.
That’s allowed UK to enter the Sweet 16 as the highest seed remaining in the South Region, but if they don’t hede Calipari’s words, they’ll be the latest higher seed to fall.
“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.”
Here’s a recap of everything Calipari and select players said Wednesday, courtesy of UK Athletics:
Q. Kevin, a lot of people are saying that you guys have the easiest path to the Final Four potentially ever and you’re really not going to be challenged all that much to get there. How do you keep focused and take every team seriously?
KEVIN KNOX: I mean, I don’t think we’ve had an easy path. 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.
Q. Shai, can you talk a little bit about your growth and development from the start of the season all the way up until now?
SHAI GILGEOUS-ALEXANDER: 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.
Q. Did you know that it was in you this early? Did you expect to be this dominant at this point in your college career?
SHAI GILGEOUS-ALEXANDER: 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.
Q. Shai, it seems like Barry Brown consistently this year has made it a point to shut down opposing point guards. Trae Young was one of them, he had a hard time against him. What challenges do you see facing him as a defender?
SHAI GILGEOUS-ALEXANDER: They’re really physical. All their guards are, really strong opposing guards. They like to get after it. But I’ve seen a lot of defenses this year, and I’ll be ready for the challenge.
Q. Kevin, what is the team’s confidence level as of now? Is it a jovial atmosphere in the locker room?
KEVIN KNOX: I think our confidence level right now is as high as it’s been all season. 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.
Q. Word has it almost the entire state of Kentucky will be coming down here to watch you guys play. Throughout the year, how have you felt the weight of expectations of Big Blue Nation on your shoulders, and how good does it feel to have that rally around you now?
HAMIDOU DIALLO: I mean, it’s definitely a lot of weight on our shoulders, but it’s just another game is how we see it. We’re going to have a lot of fans here and it’s definitely a big advantage, but we’ve still got to come out and play Kentucky basketball.
Q. Kevin, the challenge of not knowing if you’re going to get Dean Wade on the floor or not. What have you seen from them without him, and if you have to prepare for him, what kind of challenge would that be?
KEVIN KNOX: We know he’s a really good player. He really knocks down the shot and really scores in the mid-range. But us not knowing if he’s going to play or not, we just really focusing on us. We don’t really care if he plays or not. We just want to go out and do what we defensively and offensively. Hopefully, he plays so they have no excuse, but we’re just going to go out and just play our best basketball.
Q. Kevin, when Shai is playing the way that he’s been playing the last few weeks, how does that affect the confidence of this team overall?
KEVIN KNOX: I mean he’s playing his best basketball, and he’s kind of the key to the team. He has the ball in his hands. He makes the right plays, and he’s grown so much over the season with his decisionmaking. He does a really good job of getting in the lane. If you want to collapse, he can pass it out to me, Hami, Shai, Wyn, Quade. So we’ve got a lot of guys that can really knock down the shot, but he’s playing his best basketball. He’s against the basket, making the right decisions, and he’s just doing what we need him to do.
Q. Talk about when you were in the middle of your losing streak and how you guys had to come together as a team and gel together as a team to quiet the noise and what you think you did well to get yourself to the team’s level of confidence where you are right now.
HAMIDOU DIALLO: I mean, I would say we just tried to stick with each other as much as possible. 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.
Q. Shai, what’s been the biggest upgrade for you throughout the season? Came in with the high expectations, had some adversity, but now you’re kind of back on course. How have you gotten it back together?
SHAI GILGEOUS-ALEXANDER: I think we’ve worked really hard since the four-game losing streak and losing some tough and close games. We’ve just tried to work as hard as possible and do what Coach is asking of us and really try to play with each other, and when we do those things, we’re special.
Q. Shai, do you guys think that the adversity that you went through at the beginning of the season helped you all get to the point where you all are now with the games and playing in the tournament, getting to the Sweet 16?
SHAI GILGEOUS-ALEXANDER: Yeah, definitely. 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.
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.
Q. For any of the three of you, how do you balance the personal aspirations I’m sure you guys have to play professionally with your team goals for the season?
KEVIN KNOX: I mean, I think coaches give us roles, and we’re just trying to stick to what we’ve got to do best for the team. Like he said, no one really cares what the league is telling you to do, you’ve just got to come out and do what you do best. And that’s why Coach Cal has sat down with each and every one of us and told us what we need to do for the team, and that’s what we’ve been able to do. Certain guys’ roles are different than others, but we just go out and do what we’ve got to do best, and that will help us get to where we want to be.
JOHN CALIPARI: We’re excited to be here still playing. 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.
Sometimes you wonder why they’re trying to paint that picture with my team. Probably because they’re young and they know they don’t know better. But the teams here, veteran coaches, and their teams are all playing well.
Q. What’s happening now has kind of happened before in ‘11 and ‘14 where a team that sort of played itself down the food chain is now rising back up. Is there a Calipari method to how you take it down and then bring it back up at the last minute?
JOHN CALIPARI: I never take it down. I mean, I’m trying to coach my team to win every game. But what ends up happening with the teams you’re talking about, we were just so young that it took time. And you’re trying to land the plane before you run out of runway.
In 2014, the nose of the plane hit the fence, and we got better and it kind of clicked in the tournament, and we started playing well in our tournament. They gave us a crazy seed, and we ended up beating a No. 1 seed, and then the rest we kind of rolled from.
But ‘11, Brandon Knight, are you ready, missed six game-winners, until the NCAA Tournament, and then he started making game winners. Terrence and the guys and Doron, we -- Darius, we had a good team then. Josh and the guys that we had on that team and how they played, this team is totally different from those teams. This team is even more inexperienced, and we went through a stretch of four NCAA Tournament teams, three of them on the road, and we lost all four. Two of them we could have easily won. We had leads in the last minute or two, and we had to learn from it. And they did. We’ve got great kids, good players, we’re just experienced.
Q. Do you think Jarred Vanderbilt is going to play tomorrow? Do you have any update on his status?
JOHN CALIPARI: I’m going to watch him today in the shootaround. He just keeps coming, I can do this. It’s hard to play a guy that’s going to play 80, 90 percent in these kind of environments. It’s just hard. The game is played at a high level. When you talk Kansas State, they’re physical, they play hard, they’ll fly, and then if they don’t have it, they grind. You know, it’s hard walking into a game like that. They lead their league in steals. With the way they play, which they cover that lane.
My guess is no, but it would be nice to have him there. Like last game, we had foul trouble. You have that guy there that you could put in, would be nice.
Q. I wanted to ask you about a rule change that came into effect this year that might have been one you were in favor of. They extended the coaching box, as you probably know, 10 feet. As someone who likes to communicate with the team, you have younger teams you want to communicate with, has that changed the way you do business on the court?
JOHN CALIPARI: Well, let me tell you why it’s good. You have all kind of stadium configurations. Some of them, the bench is too far out. Some of them the last seat, when you stand up, you’re out of the box. So this eliminated all that.
I mean, again, it gives you more room to get closer to your team, but I like it, and I think most coaches do. It’s just -- you don’t want to step out. In ‘94 at the Spectrum where they had all those lines, I’m standing there and the guy calls a T from 90 feet away, you’re out of the box, and I really wasn’t out of the box but it looked like it. This eliminates that. Now you know where you are.
Q. You mentioned that poison in your opening statement. Do you feel like talk like that could give a team like K-State or really any team in the tournament extra motivation to come out against your team?
JOHN CALIPARI: Well, Buffalo had it, and they used it. 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. Who is playing well at the time? It’s not -- like seed, who cares about seed now? Seeds don’t matter. 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.
So I’m just trying to teach these guys because they’ve never been through this. They may be reading this stuff, and oh, my gosh. No, don’t read it, don’t watch it. Just focus on the next game we have, which is a tough one.
Q. I read the feature article on you in GQ magazine, and the article focused a lot on your Catholic faith. How important is that to you, and what role does it play in your position as head basketball coach at the University of Kentucky?
JOHN CALIPARI: Well, let me just say, I’m Catholic. My faith is the centerpiece of how I try to treat people, and I’d rather talk about basketball right now than that. And I’m not trying to be disrespectful to you. Let me put it this way: I’m a sinner, so I don’t want anybody to think I think like I’m not. I think my players know my faith. I don’t force it on anybody. I don’t challenge anybody with it. I live my life the way I live my life.
Q. I know you just spoke on seeding and how seeding doesn’t really mean much, and I was going to ask you, does that affect your message to your guys, the 5 seed, and knowing that you guys are the highest left?
JOHN CALIPARI: Well, here’s what I would say: The initial seeding does matter. Like if you’re a 1 seed, you have a big advantage over a 2, and a 2 has an advantage over a 3, and the 3 has an advantage over the 4. And I always say if you mis-seed somebody, you make somebody an 8 that should be a 5, you’re not doing damage to the 8, it’s who is the 8 playing. That team just got damaged. They shouldn’t have been playing an 8, they should have been -- that 8, that’s a 5.
But after the tournament unfolds, right now, seeds don’t matter. We’ve all advanced. There’s 16 of us, and the four in this region is the only four I care about. And really I only care about Kansas State right now. Where they’re seeded, who cares. If they come out and play well, do you think I’m thinking about, they’re an 8 seed or a 7 or a 9, whatever it is? It doesn’t matter. This is a basketball game of two teams that are still standing that will fight until the death to win a basketball game. And that’s going to happen in every one of these games.
And believe me, no one -- the other coaches in talking about seed, teams got knocked off.
Q. Coach, Georgia hired Tom Crean right up the road from here a few days ago. From your coaching perspective, what’s Georgia getting with a hire like that, and what’s the SEC getting, as well?
JOHN CALIPARI: Well, he’s a terrific basketball coach, great guy, been a friend. I’ve known him for a long time. And he’s got a good job. Georgia is a good job. They’ve proven it over the years, and I think it’ll be great for our league, and it’s going to be great for Georgia.
Q. I was asking the coaches about their first jobs in coaching and kind of what they got out of it. Can you tell me a little bit about what you did --
JOHN CALIPARI: Did Coach Owens tell you about my first job?
Q. Yeah. He has a question for you. He has a theory about how you got your bed from Allen Fieldhouse.
JOHN CALIPARI: There’s some stories. I don’t have time. I don’t like to filibuster. (Laughter).
But I was a volunteer assistant, and he watched me work camp, Coach Owens. And he said, I want you to join my staff, and I said, what position? He said, I’d like you to be a volunteer. And I said, well, how much does a volunteer make?
I lived with Dolph Carroll, who was the part-time coach. We didn’t have furniture because we had a choice between ESPN or furniture, and we chose ESPN. We sat on pillows.
I worked with the Sinclairs and served food. Would you like peas or corn? And I’d serve them, and I’d say, Tad Boyle, let’s work on some shooting. And Tad and Jeff Dishman and the guy that we played one-on-one at the time, I was 24, I killed him. Couldn’t play me. Turge came later. He was too small. I posted him up.
But it was basketball. It was a great time of my life. I met my wife. She worked at the University of Kansas at the time. And no worries, no money, nothing except basketball, and it was a great time. And a true gentleman in Ted Owens.
Later Larry Brown asked me to come back and be on his staff as a part-time assistant. So I kind of moved up the ladder a little bit. But those were great times. Those were great times. I mean, I -- you’re just there to help everybody. It’s not on you.
Like I’m at Kentucky, it’s not really on me. I wear this coat 24/7. There, you’re a young guy trying to figure it out, how do I do this? I just got lucky. Ted Owens and Larry Brown and the guys I worked for and later went to Pitt with Roy and Paul Evans, and I’ve been blessed.
Q. You --
JOHN CALIPARI: I’ll tell you the bed thing because I couldn’t afford a bed, and I’ll tell you later. That’s one of my sins. (Laughter).
I’ll tell you what it was. You know the Day After, the movie? The triage was Allen Fieldhouse. I had no bed. So they had all these cots in Allen Fieldhouse. So Dolph and I were leaving one day, and I saw a double-wide cot. It was that wide. And we went back that night, and I scooped up that cot, and that was my bed. I had to put a piece of plywood underneath it, but that was my bed. That’s how I had a bed. It was a great time. Think about that, I slept on a cot for a year. Two years.
Q. In your recruiting class, Shai Alexander was the only one who was not a McDonald’s All-American, and now there are some people projecting he might be the second point guard taken in the draft. Did you see the way he’s performed this year when you recruited him this quickly? Did you think he could be as good as he’s been?
JOHN CALIPARI: His length and his size set him apart. Learning to be that point guard -- he has a scorer’s mentality. Learning to get him to create for others, to lead in a way by how hard you play and how much you are a servant-leader for everybody else, to limit turnovers. But what you can’t do for a young man like that is put in the time and the work, 7:00workouts, shooting, best in the weight room that we had. Watched film with the coaches, like dragged you in, please watch this with me. Never missed a class. Never late for a tutor. And worked as hard as anybody I’ve had in practice. Bring it to the level that he can bring it every day. Tried to tell the rest of the team, do you see what’s happened for him. And he doesn’t play for himself, he plays for the team. But this team needs him to do stuff. Like we need you to go get some baskets now and then.
But I’m proud of him. He’s another -- the Canadian kids from Trey to Jamal to even Mychal and now, Shai, they always have a smile on their face. They always want to learn. It’s a different mentality when they come in. I used to say, Jamal would always point to me like if I wasn’t smiling when I walked into practice: “Smile.”
I’ve had fun coaching him like I’ve had fun coaching all these kids.