INDIANAPOLIS — Northern Kentucky gave Kentucky its best punch. The Wildcats overcame the Norse and survived, moving on to the second round of the NCAA Tournament late Friday night.
Just as he does each season, Kentucky coach John Calipari went into the prestigious event with “an open mind” and wasn’t surprised Northern Kentucky gave his team a battle, even though the Wildcats were heavily favored against a Norse squad making its first appearance in the Big Dance.
“For us, I have a different team every time we walk into this thing,” Calipari said. “I don’t know what to expect other than try to get my guys to be in a good frame of mind. Don’t be afraid to lose. Don’t be afraid to miss shots. Don’t be afraid to be aggressive. Go for it. Play to win. Don’t think of anything else. Forget about the score. Just keep playing to win. If that’s not good enough, it’s been a heck of a season.”
Kentucky (30-5) might be one of the few teams in the country that have won 12 straight games by scratching and clawing their way past the opposition. They’ve learned to win in a variety of ways — with and without freshmen standouts Malik Monk, De’Aaron Fox, Bam Adebayo carrying the load.
Lately the Wildcats have heavily depended on Adebayo and Fox to provide the scoring, while veterans Isiah Briscoe, Dominique Hawkins, Derek Willis and Mychal Mulder have given the Wildcats some key contributions when Monk, the team’s leading scorer, has struggled.
“We have the youngest team in this tournament, so it takes time to really figure things out,” Calipari said. “We’ve learned to win a lot of different ways. … We had to learn to grind it out.”
Perhaps, the biggest key for Kentucky during its current win streak — the longest since the 2014-15 squad won a school-record 38 straight games — has been learning not to depend on Monk to provide the scoring on a consistent basis. Monk scored 12 points against the Norse, but made only three field goals and missed all six of his shots from long range. He did most of his scoring from the free-throw line, making 6-of-7 attempts.
“He (has) learned to play going 2-10,” Calipari said. “You’re not going to go 2-20. Go 2-10 and rebound the ball, defend and do the other things to help us win.”
While Monk has slipped into somewhat of a shooting slump lately, Fox and Adebayo have tallied double figures in nine straight games. Adebayo posted his second double-double in the past four encounters with 15 points and a career-high 18 rebounds in the tournament opener against Northern Kentucky.
Sure Adebayo’s points and rebounds are beneficial, but Calipari said his versatility gives him an edge on both ends of the floor.
“I think there’s a guy that can guard all five positions,” Calipari said. “He can make free throws. He can guard the pick and roll. He can space the court, because he’s skilled — a beast head on the rim and guard all five positions. (He has) value. That’s a kid that goes in (the game) and has an impact because of that.”
Going into the second round, Calipari knows Wichita State will have revenge on its mind after the Wildcats defeated the Shockers in this event three years ago. In the last meeting between the two teams, Kentucky, then a No, 8 seed in the Midwest Region, defeated Wichita State, a No. 1 seed , 78-76 at St. Louis in 2014. The Wildcats eventually reached the Final Four, losing to Connecticut 75-71 in the national championship game.
“That’s what makes this tournament what it is,” Calipari said. “You don’t know. You may think you know, but you do not know. Teams upsetting teams, that’s what this tournament is about. You just don’t want to be one of those teams that gets upset. Let it be somebody else.”
You just never know. That’s just the way it is this time of year.
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today.