ATLANTA (KT) — Kentucky’s path to the Final Four appears to be easy on paper. Despite being the lone heavyweight remaining in the South Region, the Wildcats aren’t looking ahead to San Antonio.
“I don't think we've had an easy path,” freshman Kevin Knox said. “Every game you've got to be able to come out and fight. You see a lot of upsets, so there's a lot of teams coming out and trying to knock you off. I think every game we've got to come out and fight for 40 minutes. I don't think we've had an easy path at all so far. Some top seeds got knocked out but we're not focused about that. We just focused on us and just making sure we go out and fight and just play to win.”
Kentucky (26-10), the No. 5 seed, takes on ninth-seeded Kansas State in the South Region semifinals at 9:40 p.m. Thursday at Philips Arena. No. 11 Loyola of Chicago and seventh-seeded Nevada will play in the first of two games, with the winner advancing to the regional finals Saturday.
A week ago, the Wildcats disposed of Davidson and Buffalo to earn a seventh trip to the Sweet Sixteen under John Calipari, who is a perfect 6-0 against teams in this stage of the tournament.
Calipari’s squad has won nine of their last 10 games, including five straight in the postseason, but the Kentucky coach also is aware of the outside chatter centering around his team’s seemingly easy path to the Final Four.
“We're excited to be here still playing,” Calipari said Wednesday. “My challenge is making sure these kids don't drink that poison, that poison being we have an easy road. There are no easy roads in this tournament. If they drink that poison, we'll be done Thursday. If they don't drink the poison, it'll be a dogfight on Thursday, and let's see what happens.”
Facing a similar scenario following Buffalo’s stunning win over No. 4 seed Arizona last week, the Wildcats rolled to a 95-75 victory over the Bulls, the team’s highest scoring output of the postseason. However, Calipari said the second weekend of the tournament will be like starting over for all 16 teams remaining in the prestigious event.
Calipari said the “initial seeding matters” but added once the tournament begins, it becomes more of a moot point.
“After the tournament unfolds, right now, seeds don't matter,” he said. “We've all advanced. There's 16 of us, and the four in this region is the only four I care about. And, really, I only care about Kansas State right now. Where they're seeded, who cares? If they come out and play well, do you think I'm thinking about, they're an 8 seed or a 7 or a 9, whatever it is? It doesn't matter. This is a basketball game between two teams that are still standing that will fight until the death to win a basketball game. And that's going to happen in every one of these games.”
Kansas State (24-11) defeated Creighton in the first round and ended UMBC’s surprise run with a 50-43 victory over the Retrievers just two days after they became the first No. 16 seed to win a game in the tournament with a 74-54 rout of overall top seed Virginia a week ago in the opening round. Kansas State is making its first appearance in the regional finals since 2010.
“We've really persevered, if you look at all the things that have happened to us, the injuries,” Kansas State coach Bruce Weber said. “It seems like next man up has been definitely something that's — they've kind of bought into.”
Defeating UMBC didn’t earn the Wildcats any more respect, especially nationally. Kansas State hasn’t been given much of a chance to advance past the third round.
“Obviously the game was ugly the other day, but I don't think people appreciate what UMBC did to Virginia,” he said. “You're talking the best team in the country for most of the year, and that team was tough to play. … We're last in the ratings, but we're No. 1 in the defensive ratings: Defensive efficiency, points per game, I believe. So that always give you a chance and they've bought into that, done what the coaches have asked, and that's why we've had a successful season, and that's why we're here.”
Weber and his squad will be facing a Kentucky team that’s been playing its best basketball in the postseason, a trademark for the program during Calipari’s tenure as coach of the Wildcats.
“I think our confidence level right now is as high as it's been all season,” Knox said. “We had a really great SEC tournament, we had some momentum coming into the NCAA Tournament. I think we're playing our best basketball. Everyone is just picking each other up in the locker room, just getting after it in practice, really focusing on the game plan and the walkthroughs. And I think now we're doing a really good job of just sticking together and playing together on both ends of the basketball court.”
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter @keithtaylor21.