BOISE (KT) — Kentucky has been perfect in the postseason, but it doesn’t matter if you ask John Calipari.
“There's no one that has a record now and you just go play each game,” Calipari said. “You don't look out ahead because it really doesn't matter. You know you lose, you're out. If you win, the team you think about may not be winning. So, it's just stay in the moment.”
Despite a lack of experience in the postseason, fourth-seeded Kentucky (24-10) did just that last weekend in the Southeastern Conference Tournament. The Wildcats defeated Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee to claim their fourth straight Southeastern Conference Tournament title last weekend in Saint Louis. Kentucky has won 12 straight league tournament games.
Kentucky, a No. 5 seed in the South Region, will play 12th-seeded Davidson in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament Thursday night in Boise, Idaho. Although most of his players have no experience in the Big Dance, Calipari has made his team aware of what it’s like to play in the prestigious event and what it takes to be successful.
“I’ve talked to these guys all year about the NCAA Tournament,” he said. “I talked to them throughout the SEC Tournament about the NCAA Tournament. How everything is preparing us. How every experience is preparing us, especially when you start five freshmen. When you start five freshmen, none of them have experienced anything so anything that happens is an experience that you can talk about and teach through."
Freshman Hamidou Diallo experienced the tournament last season from the bench and was a part of the team’s march to the Elite Eight, where the Wildcats were ousted by eventual champion North Carolina at the FedExForum in Memphis.
“Everything just gets picked up a notch in March,” Diallo said. “We train for the whole year just for these moments right here, so we just knew it was going to pay off one day. It’s paying off now and we just gotta keep running with the type of firepower that we have right now.”
Although a possible matchup with No. 4 seed Arizona looms following the first round, Kentucky isn’t looking past the opener.
“We focus on the task at hand,” Kentucky sophomore Wenyen Gabriel said. “We know obviously from the four-game losing streak that we’ve been through we can’t overlook any team. Any team, they have the ability to beat you. If you don’t come in with the type of focus that you need to win the game, you can eventually lose. So we gotta focus on winning the game, each game one game at a time.”
Davidson captured the Atlantic-10 title last weekend and earned the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Although not recognized as one of the top teams in the nation, the Wildcats are known for their outside shooting, which could pose a problem for Kentucky.
“To have to play them in the opening game – wow,” Calipari said. “They're a team that can make 25 3s on you. You know, a senior-laden kind of team. It's probably exactly the kind of team that can hurt us."
Even though a tough challenge awaits, Diallo said the team’s successful ride during the SEC Tournament provided another learning experience for the Wildcats.
"We just gotta stay together as much as possible,” he said. “Teams are going to try to break us. Players are going to get fouls. Just gotta stay as a team and try to do what the game plan is coming up.”
Diallo also isn’t worried about the prospect of playing five games in eight days. Kentucky had an off-day Monday, followed by a practice session Tuesday before departing for Boise. The Wildcats also will conduct an open practice Wednesday at Taco Bell Arena.
“We just played three games in three days, so it doesn’t really scare us,” Diallo said. “We just gotta take care of our bodies. It’s the end of the season. This is why we train so hard and this is what you practice so hard for, being able to play in tough, back-to-back games.”
Gametracker: Kentucky vs. Davidson, Thursday, 7:10 p.m. TV/Radio: CBS, 98.1 FM, WBUL, Lexington.
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.