Just four games ago, most bracket experts had Kentucky on the outside looking in of the NCAA Tournament field.
And just two weeks later, the Cats are firing on all cylinders.
Saturday in Lexington, the Wildcats sent the Tigers packing in blowout fashion. This means the Cats have nearly secured a double-bye in Nashville’s SEC Tournament. They also are locked in for an NCAA Tournament bid
Myself and other media members spoke with a very happy head coach John Calipari and players after the game. Here is a recap of what they said (transcripts via UK Athletics.
Q. You guys have really been kind of in control of most of these games at some point or throughout and then you’ve talked about it kind of let the other team come back. Did this feel like, finally, I mean, obviously you’re up 40, like dropping the hammer, a complete performance, I guess?
JOHN CALIPARI: Well, having C.J. (Fredrick) back gave us minutes. Now you may look and say, He only played six minutes. That’s a lot of minutes for someone that’s playing 40 minutes.
The other guy that they talked about, they said, Chris (Livingston) had foul trouble and you played Adou (Thiero). How good did he play? I mean, he played good.
Difference for us was we made threes. When you go 0-11 from the three and still win the game you’re pretty lucky. But we make threes we can stretch things out a little bit. And we made threes today.
We still rebound the ball, we defended great. We’re getting better. The thing I talked about, like what areas can we get better at this time of the year. You’re only going to get one percent better in certain areas. But confidence, individual confidence can really grow. And that is, you do it in practice, you get in the game and you perform. You have a ball playing.
But the biggest thing is you’ve got to trust all your teammates are on the same page so that you can be a risk taker, you can make some plays, you can be aggressive because your teammates are behind you. And they also know and trust that whatever the game plan is, everybody’s locked in. Our shoot-arounds right now are 30 minutes. 30. These dudes are locked in. Bang. And then we go.
But look, that’s a good team. They’ve got size. They’ve got guard play. I think that the size of our guards probably bothered them a little bit. But they’re good. I mean, they’re a team that can score in bunches and can get you on defense and they’re good.
Q. You’ve talked about Jacob (Toppin) making use of that great physical skill, the 40-inch vertical and all that this season. When do you think it started to click for him to have this kind of rebounding?
JOHN CALIPARI: LSU. Was it the LSU game? Yeah. He started. But I just slapped him and said, I’m not letting you back up. Just know. Like, I’m on him in the game now because he’ll like to try to take his foot off the gas and act hurt. And I’m like, Are you hurt? You need to come out? Your body language affects us.
And he is playing so well, I’m just saying, Why would you want to be that other guy? This guy, he’s one of the best players in the country.
Oscar (Tsheibwe), can you see he’s getting his confidence back? He was out, we were trying to make do.
Cason (Wallace)’s getting better and better. Still has one or two screw ups. But I’m fine with it. Because he does so many other things.
Q. How close do you feel all your guys are on the confidence level and the whole trusting each other. How close are you?
JOHN CALIPARI: We’re on that rise. And at this time of the year you’re trying to have them empowered. They’re calling plays in huddles now. Cason saying, ‘Why don’t we do this’. Boom. The minute they say that to me I go, ‘Let’s do it’. Because it’s off my plate and now it’s on their plate to make it work. And I want that.
Defensively the same. We talked about changing and they went, ‘No, let us keep playing this way’. Fine. Let’s go.
So you want them empowered. You want them confident. But just as important you want them to have a ball playing. Even when it gets rough and the other team makes a run, you got to have a ball playing basketball. Especially this time of the year. Because you don’t want it to end.
Refuse to lose. Doesn’t mean you’re winning every game. It means your mentality of how you’re playing. You never stop. The clock may run out on you. But you just keep coming. And these guys are embodying that right now.
Q. Not to kind of maybe go back to the first question too much, but you have mentioned a lot about not letting the other team get back in games when you get these double-digit leads. Did you think today not letting that happen is a sign of growth and maturity of this team, especially heading into these final couple regular season games?
JOHN CALIPARI: But we’re up 25. It wasn’t 10, 12.
Q. No, but you were only up 15 there early in the second half. And Florida, they came back and made it interesting. They took the lead at halftime.
JOHN CALIPARI: We’ve been showing them the tape. We’ve been watching. We said, ‘Why this. Why that’. So, I got a very intelligent team. Smart team. And they’re getting it. But you got to be confident.
You know what you’ve got to make? Free throws. You know what you’ve got to make? An open shot. That’s a dagger. You know what you’ve got to get? A tough rebound and throw it ahead and make that three. That’s a dagger. And we kept running today. I mean, we didn’t stop. We wanted this game to be fast. That’s how we play.
Offensively, you know, I can’t imagine we’re not in the top 10 in the country offensively how we’re playing. And they’re getting it.
Q. You talked about hitting shots, hitting threes. Antonio (Reeves) hit so many of those today, seemed to really get going. But it was just four, five games ago you mentioned there was a game you couldn’t play him because of the way he was playing on defense.
JOHN CALIPARI: It was Florida. What happened in the Florida game? He got beat how?
Q. Back doors.
JOHN CALIPARI: For layups. You know, what he didn’t do against Florida the second time? He did not get beat back door. And he looked at me and I looked at him and we both just smiled. Like, they were trying. And that’s what I’m talking about, confidence defensively.
You think that I’m talking about just shooting the ball and just let it go. No. I’m talking about confidence rebounding the ball. Confidence on defense. Confidence flying up the floor even if you don’t think you’re going to get the ball. That you’re confident if you are open you’re going to get it. You’re never jogging. Confident that you’re a playmaker and you’re not going to charge or throw it away. Again, today we didn’t have many open-court turnovers. They convert better than any team in the country if you turn it over, live ball turnovers. So, we’re getting better. A couple more. Yes?
Q. After the South Carolina game and even the Georgia game, I mean it was assumed that the guys were pretty low. How different is the locker room the last week or so compared to those times?
JOHN CALIPARI: You know, there’s two things when you’re coaching: One, you’ve got to hold them accountable. Like, you got to — no. You say no. You got to hold them accountable. But you’re juggling balls because you also got to build them up. But if you just agree, Yeah, you’re fine. Just keep, yeah, you know. Vanderbilt so you got to hold them accountable, challenge them. Get them to think in terms of getting better. And the whole thing — all we talked about is winning today. Winning today’s practice. We gave out awards every practice. We just stayed in the moment. They just told me — I don’t even — I know we play Vanderbilt because they just told me next. I don’t know who we’re playing next. Now I know Vandy. That’s all I know and that’s what I’m focused on. So trying to get those guys to stay in the moment.
Then the other thing is, you know, what anybody is saying. You don’t have to read it, look at it. I said it, people tried to talk us out of the NCAA tournament. They tried. They’re out. They’re done. They’re awful. They’re this. You play yourself in or play yourself out. And it’s really never over when you have a tournament that has an automatic bid. So everybody in our league still has a chance to get in. But I just kept convincing them, you can’t — what they say has no affect on what we’re about to do. And again, I always say, Is it their opinion or their hope? They giving you their opinion or their hope? Kind of know what it is. But go ahead. Last one.
Q. The spike you had in offensive rebounding, how much of offensive rebounding is just pure effort?
JOHN CALIPARI: It’s angles, it’s wedging. How about this: We — there’s things that are rated every game. One, sprints. You get graded. A, B, C, D, or F. Every time the ball changes defense to offense you’re sprinting. We also grade offensive and defense rebound attempts. Offensive rebound attempts. Who do you think is the highest on our team? Oscar. Who is the second highest on our team? Chris. Wow. Because he attempts so much, he gets a chance to rebound. We also grade weak-side defense. So when the game ends, they are graded on every possession they’re in. Again, to hold them accountable. They’re really listening and following game plans. We’re not breaking down. Especially defensively where it was ugly for a while. We’re just getting better. I’m happy for these guys. And you know what else, I’m just so happy for our fans. That we’re promoting and pushing. And I mean that building was packed. You don’t think that has an impact on the game? It absolutely does have an impact on the game. And so now we go to Florida, what do you think they’re yelling at the end of the game? Go Big Blue. Louder than their fans. And it’s our fans on the road. And I’m just happy for the fans who were so patient and were so supportive.
I mean, and I’m saying this to everybody, you can stop sending me letters now and cards. I got a stack of them. Everybody, I’m fine. I’m good. I mean, it’s, none of it — I say it, I got bazooka holes in my body. You think a bullet or an arrow? It doesn’t hit skin. I’m just trying to worry about them.
And if I felt bad — you asked me about Georgia and South Carolina. I felt awful after those games. My first thought is, If I feel this way, how do my players feel. And then I got to go back and get out of my own self’s way and say, ‘Let me be about them’. But they’re coming together. They trust each other.
Now we got another tough game. I mean, Vandy’s playing as well as anybody in our league. They are. So we’ll have another tough game to play and hopefully we have the same kind of crowd. When is the game? Wednesday at 7? We’ll see. One more. Let me go do radio, folks. Thank you.
On how the win feels…
“You know, it feels great. Everybody was connected – talking on the defensive end. Everything was just going good for us, defensively and offensively. So I’m happy about that.”
On if the atmosphere today met his expectations of coming to Kentucky…
“Yeah, of course. You know, it’s just that everybody had to figure out what their role was on the team, at first. Everybody is just starting to get connected with one another – trust one another, so you know, you could just tell out there – it’s totally different. This is what it’s all about.”
On when he knew his shots were going to start falling in the game…
“I knew that – the first three I had, and then I had a wide-open three after that. I already knew I was gonna knock that one down. After that, I already knew every shot I put up was gonna go in, so like, it was just one of those days for me.”
On communication and having each other’s backs…
“You know, ball-screen defense, guards fighting over [screens], Oscar being in the right spot off the ball-screens. Just guys pulling – you know, if the ball is on the strong side of the board. Everybody is just connected with one another now, and everybody’s talking too. We weren’t really doing that at first, and this guy right here [Oscar Tshiebwe] – yeah, that’s what it really was.”
Antonio Reeves talks postgame with media after the blowout win against Auburn. pic.twitter.com/KxZ7SzZFVP— Dylan Ballard (@DylanBallard_UK) February 26, 2023
On maintaining lead throughout game…
“Like I’ve been saying, we have to fight no matter how much we’re up by. If we slow it down, the other team will come back and it’ll give them more confidence. We don’t want to give people confidence. During Florida, there were times where we relaxed a little bit and then they came back and they got more confidence and then they started to think, ‘Yeah we can beat these people.’ That’s why I say ‘Let’s keep it going, we can’t relax’”.
On confidence increasing throughout the season and post injury…
“This is the time of the year, everything we went through was just to build my confidence and be prepared for the time about to come. March Madness and the SEC tournament. For me now, I have no distractions. I’m just in the gym, focused, locked in. We play together and we just stay focused. Right now I have nothing distracting me from this path, I came back to win a championship. I’m pretty confident right now with this team and where we’re going.”
On how team is taking care of business and focusing on the “small things”…
“I feel like right now everyone is locked in. Right now everybody just wants to win, you can see right now, even the walk ons, everybody just wants to win. You see our bench is hyped all the time, jumping up and down. Losing is too much, we don’t want to go through what we went through. We were just sitting in the locker room sad, going through practice sad, everybody is just sad. We were trying to figure it out and now we’ve found a way to win. We’re diving for balls, like coach said we need to refuse to lose. We just don’t want to lose anymore. I’m glad I outrebounded Chris today.”
Oscar Tshiebwe talks postgame with media after the blowout win against Auburn. pic.twitter.com/CeElYBhXsP— Dylan Ballard (@DylanBallard_UK) February 26, 2023
Cason Wallace talks postgame with media after the blowout win against Auburn. pic.twitter.com/QHsaRiLB58— Dylan Ballard (@DylanBallard_UK) February 26, 2023
And here are the postgame notes via UK Athletics.
Team Records and Series Notes
- Kentucky won its fourth in a row – tying a season-long win streak for the third time this season – and the Wildcats are 20-9 overall and 11-5 in the Southeastern Conference.
- Kentucky has tied at least a tie for fourth place in the league standings but, as this was written, has not clinched a Friday double-bye at the SEC Tournament.
- Auburn is 19-10 overall, 9-7 in the league.
- Kentucky leads the series 97-23.
- UK leads 51-2 in games played in Lexington and has won the last 20 vs. the Tigers in Rupp Arena.
- Next for the Wildcats: Kentucky hosts Vanderbilt on Wednesday at 7 p.m. The Senior Night game will be televised on the SEC Network.
- Kentucky limited Auburn to 54 points. UK is 88-0 under John Calipari, including 5-0 this season, when keeping the opponent to 55 points or fewer.
- Auburn shot 33.9% from the field. UK is 231-24 (90.6%) under Calipari when the opponent shoots 40% or less from the field.
- UK won the rebounding 41-23, leading to a 14-7 advantage in second-chance points.
- UK is 20-4 this season when winning the rebounding and 13-0 when winning the rebounding by double digits.
- Kentucky’s 10 steals are the most since 10 thefts at Gonzaga on November 20.
- Kentucky’s 86 points is a season high in an SEC game.
- Kentucky shot 56.1% from the field today, the 10th time this season and second game in a row that the Wildcats have made at least half their shots.
- Kentucky shot a season-high 61.5% on 3-pointers, 8 of 13.
- UK is 13-0 this season when making at least 36% from long range.
- Kentucky made 14 of 15 free throws, a season-high 93.3 percent.
- This was the second game in a row that UK had two double-doubles – Toppin and Tshiebwe today and Toppin and Livingston at Florida.
- Kentucky led by as many as 40 points today, marking the third-largest lead in any game this season. The Wildcats are 327-13 (96.2%) under John Calipari when leading by at least 10 points at some point during the game.
- Oscar Tshiebwe collected 22 points and 17 rebounds.
- This is his 16th double-double of the season and 44th in 61 games at Kentucky.
- His 44th double-double moved him past Jim Andrews for third place in UK history in that category.
- It is his fifth 20-15 game of the season, 12th as a Wildcat.
- He has made 20 of 23 shots from the field in the last two games, 87 percent.
- He made all six free throws, tying his best perfect performance as a Wildcat, also made 6 of 6 vs. Gonzaga and Florida A&M.
- Jacob Toppin had 13 points and a career-high 12 rebounds.
- It is his seventh double-double of the season and first time he has done it back-to-back games.
- It is his 12th-straight game with double-figure scoring and 14th in the last 16.
- He has made 7 of 10 on 3-point shots in the last five games.
- He also had a season-high-tying five assists, only one short of his career high.
- Antonio Reeves tossed in 21 points – 18 in the second half – his seventh 20-point game of the season.
- He has made 15 of 31 on 3-point shots in the last five games.
- He has scored in double figures in 13 of his last 15 games.
- Cason Wallace almost had a double-double with 19 points and nine assists.
- 19 points are his most since 24 vs. Arkansas on Feb. 7.
- It is his sixth game in a row with at least five assists and nine assists matches his second-most of the season.
- After missing four games because of a rib injury, CJ Fredrick returned to action and played seven minutes.
Coach John Calipari
- This is Kentucky’s 13th 20-win season in 14 seasons under John Calipari.
- Calipari is 14-6 vs. Auburn, all coming at Kentucky.
- Calipari has an 830-250 all-time on-court record and is 385-110 in 14 seasons at UK.
- UK is 316-62 (83.6%) against unranked competition under Calipari.
- Kentucky is 647-80 (89.0%) in the 47-year history of Rupp Arena.
- Kentucky is 220-20 (91.7%) in Rupp Arena under Calipari.
In the First Halfx
- Kentucky starters were Cason Wallace, Antonio Reeves, Chris Livingston, Jacob Toppin and Oscar Tshiebwe for the fifth game in a row. UK is 4-1 with this lineup.
- Adou Thiero and CJ Fredrick were the first substitutes at the 12:33 mark.
- The half was played evenly until the final 1:40, when a Toppin 3-pointer, a Wallace 3, and two Tshiebwe foul shots ended the half on an 8-0 run to take a 40-29 advantage into the locker room.
- Tshiebwe got a double-double in the first half with 14 points and 10 rebounds.
- UK is now 17-0 this season when leading or tied at halftime.
In the Second Half
- Kentucky opened the second half with the starting lineup.
- After Auburn got the first basket, UK got an 9-0 spurt for a total run of 17-2, pushing the tally to 49-31.
- UK led by as many as 40 points at 88-46.