ACU is one of the feel-good stories of the tournament. ACU clinched their first NCAA Tournament bid by winning the Southland Conference Tournament. What’s most remarkable about the Wildcats story is the fact they are only six years removed from being a D-II program.
Now in the dance, ACU will have to play Blue Blood Kentucky. Heading into the tournament, there’s a mix of excitement and stress surrounding the Big Blue Nation.
The excitement comes from knowing Kentucky may have their best chance to win a national championship since losing in the final four in 2015. Kentucky was as dominant as anyone during the regular season and brings plenty of confidence into this year’s tournament.
However, stress comes from the injury news regarding star PJ Washington, who has been in a boot since Sunday according to UK.
The big question of course is will Washington play tomorrow?
Today John Calipari and his players answered that and many other questions.
Here’s a summary of what they had to say via UK Athletics.
Q. The season, a fantastic run, but it ended a little shy in the SEC Tournament. How did you guys bounce back, and what’s it like to be back in the NCAAs again?
KELDON JOHNSON: I mean, it feels good just being able to get another shot. Of course like you said, we fell short a little bit in the SEC Tournament, but we just regrouped and refocused and locked in, and we’re ready to go now.
Q. When you guys all made the decision to come to Kentucky, it was probably in part to have moments like this. Now that it’s right here, how does it feel to get ready to play on this stage, and do you guys feel prepared for the moment?
TYLER HERRO: I think it’s a dream come true for all of us. Obviously coming to Kentucky, the coaching staff and just being at Kentucky is going to be the biggest stage in college basketball. We’re just happy to be here. As a team I think we’re ready to go, and just ready to attack this tournament.
ASHTON HAGANS: Like Tyler said, it’s a dream come true, just growing up watching this on TV and now getting the chance to play in this tournament, it’s a big confidence thing, and we’re just ready to come in and play.
Q. Could you talk about how Calipari gets you to this point of the year, what the expectations are and a lot expected of you guys at this point? What is the secret? What does he say? How does he handle and how do you guys handle expectations of where you’re at right now to try to win a National Championship?
KELDON JOHNSON: We’ve been just going hard all year, and at this point in the year he always says that we just have to fall back on our training. I think that’s a big thing that we do. I think as long as we fall back on our training, because if we try to live up to his expectations, that’s exactly what it is, how he coaches us every day in practice, and so that’s what we’re used to, so that’s what we just fall back on.
Q. What has Coach Cal been emphasizing to you guys in the locker room in preparation for the tournament and the first game tomorrow?
ASHTON HAGANS: You know, like Keldon said, just play to our training, be as one, stick together as we do on the court, and just go off our training.
Q. How much of a difference has Reid Travis been for you guys? You’re all freshmen, he’s obviously a lot older, fifth-year kid. How much has he helped you in terms of maybe coming into a situation like this, even if he hasn’t played in a lot of NCAA tournaments?
TYLER HERRO: Reid is obviously a huge part to our team. It really hurt us when he was out for those few weeks, but I think the guys that didn’t get as much minutes, they got to come in and fulfill their role. Reid has been a huge part to it, just being able to -- he’s a leader, like you said, he’s a fifth-year guy and we can look up to him as freshmen, but he does a lot of things that don’t show up in the stat book, so we’re happy to have him. We’re happy he’s back and healthy and ready to go?
Q. Is he the leader of this team? Like if there was a leader, is it Reid?
KELDON JOHNSON: It just all depends on the situation, what’s going on. Of course for him being so much older than a lot of us, we ask him for a lot of advice, and he’s always gotten us through certain situations that happen in basketball, whether it’s we’re down at a certain point or we’re getting a little rattled, he’s always just there to make sure we’re good and bring us back together.
THE MODERATOR: If you could just an opening general statement about your season and being back in the tournament as a 2 seed here.
JOHN CALIPARI: We had a good run. The team is getting better. They’re coming together. We’ve got great kids. I mean, they share. It’s not about one of them; it’s about all of them.
They all have worked. They’re gym rats. If I go to the office and it’s 11:00 at night, there won’t be one in there, there will be four, five or six in there. You know, they’re into it.
They’ve not been in this environment. We don’t know how they’ll react. I have a feeling they’ll be fine, but a lot of young guys.
Q. Can you give an update on PJ’s status? Is he here today, and do you expect him to play tomorrow?
JOHN CALIPARI: PJ sprained his foot in the Tennessee game. We had him in the boot for a while. X-rays, everything was negative, MRIs. But we sent him to a specialist. Again, precaution. He wants to play. Well, if you know me, I’m like, wait a minute, let’s go get one more level of this.
So we expect him -- he’s not here with us right now. He’ll probably be here in an hour or so, but we sent him to the specialist to make sure that he can’t harm himself. But we expect him to play.
Q. You look at ACU, it’s a very different team in many ways, first time in the tournament, and your program has established itself. Is there anything to be concerned about with that program? Is this just another match-up for you guys? What is your mentality going into this?
JOHN CALIPARI: Well, again, I’ve been in this thing a bunch, and I tell you, it doesn’t matter because everybody is zero and zero right now. You don’t look beyond anything else. All we’re worried about is Abilene Christian because they’re good enough to beat us.
I watched their games. I’m impressed with how they play, both inside and outside. They defend. They make it hard for catches. They try to steal balls. They scramble the game up. They’re good. They’re well-coached.
You know, again, a 16 beat a 1 last year. There’s been 15s that have beaten 2s. And so you just go in and you worry about yourself.
Again, I’m trying to explain to these guys, you don’t play to the opponent, you don’t play to the tournament, you don’t play to the TV or the crowd. You play to your training. If you can do that, you’ll be able to do that for 40 minutes. If you do the others, you’re going to be able to play for 15 and it’s not good enough to win in this tournament.
And again, I’ve been doing this 30-some years. I mean, it’s play to the training, stay in the moment is the message to these young guys.
Q. What do you see as you’re looking at the game film? You talked about how you want to make sure you’re focusing on yourself. Everybody has a game plan going in. What type of challenges does --
JOHN CALIPARI: You can get hit in the mouth and then that game plan goes away.
Q. That’s right.
JOHN CALIPARI: Again, we’ve got to take care of the ball because they want to steal balls. They play aggressive. Their 5 man can shoot. So if you don’t go play him, he’s making shots. The championship game they played, he made the two threes that ended the game. It was their 5 man.
So you look at this and say, they’ve got drivers, they’ve got a couple guys that are making threes. They can stretch you out. They can get you near the basket. I mean, they’re good. They’re good. And defensively they’re not just giving you baskets. You’re going to have to fight because they play. They’re well-coached.
Q. You’ve consistently had success recruiting players that have a future in the NBA. How do your players on this team compare to the great players you’ve coached in the past?
JOHN CALIPARI: Every team I’ve coached is different, and I mean that literally. Like I come in each year and it’s a brand new team.
This team is skilled, one of the higher skilled teams that I’ve had. This team has been able to stay in the moment and be about each other, which in this day and age with social media, with the clutter around them, with the people, you know, the flattery they get, which is you’re better than so and so, you should be shooting more shots, why -- they hear this, being enabled, and to fight that, this team has done unbelievable.
Is there an Anthony Davis or a Karl Towns -- they all get mad. All 30 of them want me to mention them right now. Do you guys mind if I mention all 30? (Laughter). The $2 billion in contracts those kids make? I can do it if you want me to. But these kids are different.
Now, they’re professionals, too. They’re going to be in that league. But they’re doing it together. And different guys are doing it. The one advantage we have with this year’s team is Reid Travis. I mean, I’ve not coached a 23-year-old since I left UMass, and he is so professional in how he handles everything, practices, preparation, training himself and also getting his body right. You know, he’s one of those guys.
Now, he’s not been in this tournament, so he’s another one that you look at, other than PJ, the other guys really -- Nick played a few minutes, but he’s not -- they’ve not been significant in this thing. So that’s something we’ve got to see how it turns out.
Q. I was going to ask you about Reid and how big of a challenge is it for him to stay focused with finally getting to the NCAA, and then with the Final Four in Minneapolis, his hometown.
JOHN CALIPARI: Is that where it is?
Q. That’s what I hear.
JOHN CALIPARI: Wow. I grabbed him today, I said, “You’ve prepared your whole life for this,” and I said, “Have a ball, man. Have a ball.”
And if he relies on his training instead of thinking of all the -- he will be fine, because no one trains like him. And whatever you ask him, I can get on him, like really hit him, and he’s fine. He never wavers. I mean, I scream -- he missed a free throw last game, and I just looked, screamed at him, “Make a free throw!” And he made the next one.
I’ve had a ball coaching him. I mean, absolutely every day I walk in, it’s kind of like I used to say with Jamal Murray, who would smile and make me smile, every time I see him when I walk in the gym, Travis, I smile. I know he’s going to give us everything he can.
Q. Your team has had a really good job at the end of games this year --
JOHN CALIPARI: Until the last one.
Q. That’s what I was going to ask you. There were some uncharacteristic turnovers, et cetera. Do you look back at -- one of them maybe could have been something else --
JOHN CALIPARI: There’s stuff I can’t say here, you know.
Q. And I can’t either, you see the news. Is it possible -- is it just one of those things? Was it a fluke?
JOHN CALIPARI: Yeah, there were -- if you looked at what you’re talking about, go back and look at the tape. You may have a different opinion. And the second thing is -- and I told them this: When you go through a season, you have to learn how to finish games off, which we have. You have to learn how to be down 10 or 11 and come back and win, which we have. You have to learn about playing fast, playing slow, playing against pressing teams. We played against a team that, thank goodness, played a 1-3-1. Nobody plays it anymore, but what if you get it in the tournament? And I’ve got all young guys. This isn’t like, well, two years ago -- no, they weren’t here two years ago.
So it’s been a great experience, in our league, there have been so many games that were won in the last minute for every one of our teams in our league. We got eight teams in, and the other two were on the bubble, like it could have been 10 teams. And every team played through this league, gave themselves a chance now to come in this tournament and do well.
Q. You mentioned all the young guys that have played as many NCAA Tournament games as ACU guys have, but when you wear that blue, there are the expectations. How do you manage the expectations and the pressure that comes with that “UK” on their shirt?
JOHN CALIPARI: That’s overrated. They don’t care if we win or lose at Kentucky. They’re fine. As long as we really do the right stuff, we’re okay.
The one advantage that we have coming in to a tournament like this is every game we play is someone’s Super Bowl. And 98 percent of the time, the other team has nothing to lose. I don’t care who it is. If you come to Rupp, you have nothing to lose because most teams are not going to win in that building.
If we go to their place, they have nothing to lose, plus they have the fans. In this tournament, everybody has something to lose. And we’re used to playing that way. So that helps us more than anything else.
The kids, you know, I think they’re proud to be in the uniform, but I don’t think it weights on them more than any other uniform. But they’re proud. And they know what happened before them, and they know how every one of those players left this place better than when they all got here, and they know they all finished the term academically, which is why we finish in the top ten in the APR and they send us awards, which you guys don’t hear about, every year, because we’re one of those schools that finishes in the top because the kids finish the term and do what they’re supposed to do academically. That’s the culture that’s been left, and that’s the culture that you leave when you leave here.
Q. In terms of what Immanuel has played of late --
JOHN CALIPARI: Ooh, he’s been great.
Q. Is that just seeing the ball go in, or is it coming here and maybe adjusting to playing with guys who are as good, if not better than him?
JOHN CALIPARI: Immanuel Quickley has probably improved as much, if not more than anybody on our team. He’s another one that lives in the gym. I’m trying to get him to slow his mind down. In this game we play, you can have your feet move real fast, but your feet can’t move faster than your mind move fast. And getting him to slow down his mind so that he can read stuff better, that’s been what we’ve worked on all season, and he’s getting better and better and better.
From where he was defensively to where he is now, from where he is decision making and shot making and play making to where he is now, not close. I am so proud of him and so happy for him.
You know, he and Ashton playing together, subbing for each other, it’s worked out well.
Q. 30 years now for you at this level --
JOHN CALIPARI: 35 maybe. I know, I started when I was eight. (Laughter).
Q. Do you have an appreciation or can you remember like what Joe Golding is going through here, about to coach his first NCAA Tournament game? I think your first was maybe your fourth year at UMass. Do you remember what that was like at all?
JOHN CALIPARI: It took us three years to get to .500, to get to .500, and then I think we went in the NIT and advanced. We went and advanced to a Final Four, which the whole school went crazy because we were in the NIT and went to the Final Four. We didn’t win it.
And then the next year it was year four that we were in the NCAA Tournament, and Jim McCoy and Will Herndon, and Anton Brown and Harper Williams, Tony Barbee, Lou Roe, who was a beast, and I could name the other guys if you’d like, but as I get older I do slip up a little bit.
But that run and what was done during that time with those kids, and again, they shared, five guys in double figures, defended, tough -- we used to do screaming rebounds. When you rebounded you had to scream. Like you didn’t just go grab the ball (screaming) and the other team was like, “These dudes are crazy.” But we would do stuff and have a ball with it, and at the time we didn’t know better. I didn’t know -- until you get off your own campus and you’re on somebody else’s campus and you see like, wow, you don’t realize.
But it was a fun time, and yeah, I do know. It’s an exciting time, and you just want your kids to have a ball with it, and I imagine that’s what he’s trying to do. Let’s have fun. Let’s go, let it go, shoot the ball. That’s what makes it dangerous when you’re the other coach, and that’s what happened for us there. We played so hard and with so much enthusiasm that we won some games.
Was that the year that we played Kentucky and we would have beat them except there was a -- stepped out of the box in the Spectrum I remember. See, the Spectrum had different colors, because it was the Spectrum, and so if you were across the court like 62 feet away, you would have thought I was out of the box, but I looked down and I’m like, I’m in the box, you can’t see, the Spectrum in the lines. That’s how we lost the game.
When did we beat them, the first game of -- ‘95, we beat them with like -- I think they had 11 NBA players on that team.
Q. In your 30-plus years in the business, can you recall the first time you crossed paths with Rick Byrd, and what are your impressions of the job that he’s done taking a team from NAIA to Division I independents to now in the OVC?
JOHN CALIPARI: Well, he and I are friends. I went up and was in his house this summer because I wanted him to tell me some five-out stuff, some back-door stuff, some shooting -- because I thought we had a skilled team and I wanted to learn some different stuff, and we ended up spending an afternoon together with he and his assistant Tyler.
But I’ve watched -- we’ve had to play him when I was at Memphis. He reminded me we played them -- because I won’t play them now. I’m like, don’t call me, I’m not playing you. You’re the most dangerous team in the country. No one knows how good you are or how good you coach. But I texted him last night after the game and just said, I was so happy for him. When we play in Nashville, we go to Belmont to practice, and he always opens up the gym to us.
He’s been so involved -- as a coach we all know, he’s a Hall of Fame coach. He’s 800 wins, he’s ridiculous. But also for the game of basketball, he’s been on the rules committee, he has spent time, and to be on those committees, it’s like time-consuming. He was an athletic director on the committees coaching basketball. He finally gave up the AD stuff, he just wants to coach.
He’s a coach’s coach is what he is, and great at what he does, great for his kids, has an unbelievable -- he still has a fight and fire, but his kids love him.
Q. Your reaction to the fact your players don’t believe you could survive by yourself in the wild?
JOHN CALIPARI: They truly don’t know me. I probably would struggle wrestling a bear, but other than that, I could live off the grid.
Q. Your wife says you couldn’t, either.
JOHN CALIPARI: Well, when we watch the shows, I say, I could do that, and she busts out and says, you couldn’t do that for four minutes. But no, I could. I really could.