After a hard road, Kentucky arrives at the NCAA Tournament. ‘Just go in and make history.’
Call it fate or a coincidental quirk of the calendar, but when the Kentucky Wildcats take the basketball court Friday night it will be the one-year anniversary of the unthinkable.
March 17, 2022: Saint Peter’s 85, Kentucky 79. One of — perhaps the — most disappointing and perplexing postseason games in UK basketball history.
March 17, 2023: Kentucky vs. Providence in the Greensboro Coliseum.
What happens next?
With this Wildcats’ team, that’s anybody’s guess.
Everyone involved with UK’s program knows the score going in. It’s been four years since the Cats have won an NCAA Tournament game. That’s an unthinkable drought for what Providence Coach Ed Cooley referred to Thursday as “the most elite college basketball program in all of college basketball history.”
It comes with an asterisk, of course. UK likely would have been a 3 seed in the 2020 tournament had that one not been canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But that seems like ancient history after a 9-16 campaign the following season and the shocking ouster at the hands of 15-seeded Saint Peter’s this time last year.
On one hand, that puts a lot of pressure on these Wildcats for Friday night.
On the other hand, there’s pressure on everyone once March Madness begins. And this Kentucky team finds itself in the unique position of balancing what happened a year ago with what they think could happen if things click into place from here on out. And on top of all of that, there’s the 2022-23 season that the Cats have been through so far.
This was supposed to be a team of redemption. Ranked No. 4 in the preseason with hopes of a 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and seemingly realistic dreams of an NCAA title, things haven’t gone quite according to the script.
These Cats have been though a lot. Eleven losses are on their résumé, sure. But there’s been much more than that. Injury issues piled up early and lingered throughout the year. Jacob Toppin spoke candidly about the mental struggles he endured during the season, and he wasn’t the only Wildcat to go through such difficult times. Kentucky’s struggles on the court led to backlash on social media and elsewhere, and John Calipari implored his college-aged players to do the impossible and avoid such negative — sometimes hateful — talk.
It’s been a grind for Kentucky’s players and coaches just to get to this point.
“I’m excited for these kids — where they are,” Calipari said on Selection Sunday. “And me knowing, individual players — not just one — where they were, and what we had to do to keep bringing them along. And now here they are. …
“It shows me the growth of these young people. And that’s our job. That’s what we do here. Getting them prepared for the rest of their life and what they want to do. It’s been a good run and a learning experience.”
Will the run end this weekend in North Carolina? Or next week in New York City? Or, hope against hope for these Cats and their coach and the fans that have continued to follow them, Final Four weekend in Houston?
That will be decided on the court, starting Friday at 7:10 p.m. against the Providence Friars.
For much of this season, starting with that first defeat to Michigan State on Nov. 15 and continuing as the losses mounted, the Wildcats were a lightning rod of negativity. And dealing with that wasn’t easy. As the season progressed, and the tough times continued, they had to learn to deal with it, move on, or be left behind.
On Thursday afternoon, Toppin said the Cats took their lead from Calipari.
“I think he’s kind of canceled out all that noise,” he said. “He has gotten better at doing that, and he has gotten better at teaching us to cancel out all the negativity. Because in life, if you focus on the negative, things won’t go well. So we try to stay focused on the positive things, stay within ourselves, stay within this team and see how we can get better as a team and individually within our system — and not worry about all the outside noise, because it can affect us not just on the court, but in life.
“So we try to stay away from what people have to say about this team, because we understand what this team is capable of. And we’re together every day 24/7, so nobody else knows what we go through, what practice is like, what games are like. No one knows what we’re going through.”
What is this team capable of?
To hear them tell it, those preseason expectations of a trip to the Final Four and, ultimately, a national championship haven’t been tempered. The Wildcats who were here last year learned from Saint Peter’s that a season can end in a flash. For some of those guys — Toppin, Oscar Tshiebwe, Sahvir Wheeler — the next loss is likely to be their final game in a Kentucky jersey.
And they know there are no easy games on the schedule once this tournament begins.
“Play like it is your last game,” Tshiebwe said. “For those who are planning to be done with Kentucky after this year, think about it — this could be your last game at Kentucky. So what are you going to do if you know today is your last game? Just go in and make history. Make history. Just go fight. Fight for your life. And if you fight for your life, then you win, you move to another game. … Just play like that.”
Tshiebwe has made clear over the past couple of weeks that the Final Four is still where he expects this season to end. Winning a national title is how he wants to go out. The Kentucky star acknowledged that he and his teammates might have taken things for granted last March, overlooking the 15-seeded Peacocks and sent packing as a result.
Starting Friday, he said he doesn’t care about stats or stature. He says anyone with an “I gotta get mine” mindset is better off not stepping on the court.
“You don’t matter anymore,” he said. “You just gotta do what you gotta do to help bring something to the table. That’s one thing I keep telling them. And I’m not stopping until the Final Four. Or the final game.”
Everyone on this team knows what they signed up for, too, it should be noted.
They know that a 21-11 record is not up to par when it says Kentucky across your chest. Injuries or not, the 2022-23 season has been a subpar one to this point.
“When you are playing at the highest level and the highest brand, there’s a lot of good, and there’s a lot of expectations that come with that,” said senior guard CJ Fredrick. “So that’s on us moving forward. So many great players and the tradition of this place — we’re looking to keep that going this weekend. And obviously (longer).”
Toppin said the Cats are in “a great mindset” for the Providence game, coming off a “great” week of practice and returning at something close to full health at just the right time.
“We understand that whatever happens in the end happens,” he said. “As long as we fight, as long as we stay together, good things will happen.”
That’s a positive outlook toward the end of a long, hard road. This journey, Calipari has said, will be one this group of Wildcats will never forget. Where and when that journey ends?
That will be answered soon enough. For now, they’re here.
And once you get here, all things remain possible. Until there are no more games to play.
“What I would say in all this stuff — by overcoming this, I told them: there’s nothing you’re gonna go through that will be like this. And you did it,” Calipari said Sunday night. “So when anything hits you, you’re gonna say, ‘Dude, you should’ve been through the ’23 season.’
“And I get it. We got the greatest fans. They travel. They’re into it. No one has the fan base that we have. And the other side of it is: we got the greatest fan base that’s really into it and passionate. You got a small portion of them that are really aggressive. That’s all part of being at Kentucky. But for those players to live through that? Great experience for the rest of their lives.”
No. 6 Kentucky vs. No. 11 Providence
What: NCAA Tournament first round
Where: Greensboro Coliseum in Greensboro, North Carolina.
When: 7:10 p.m.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Kentucky 21-11, Providence 21-11
Series: Kentucky leads 3-0
Last meeting: Kentucky won 58-38 on Nov. 30, 2014, in Lexington
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