ATLANTA — John Calipari doesn’t want Kentucky to get caught up in the hype.
Although the Wildcats, now 26-10, are heavily favored to win the South Region this weekend and advance to the Final Four for the first time in three years, the Kentucky coach wants his players to take a game-by-game approach against Kansas State Thursday night, March 22.
“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.”
Kentucky forward Kevin Knox said the Wildcats aren’t looking ahead and staying in the moment. He added the road from Boise to Atlanta wasn’t an easy task.
“I don't think we've had an easy path,” 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.”
Given Kentucky’s improvement and unblemished record in the postseason (5-0), the Wildcats should easily punch a ticket to San Antonio this weekend in Atlanta, where UK took the same path to a national championship in 2012. The Wildcats are 6-0 in Sweet Sixteen games under Calipari, whose UK teams have captured six Southeastern Conference tournament titles while advancing to the SEC championship game eight times in a nine-year span.
Kentucky has won its last four NCAA tournament games in Georgia. The path to a national championship in 1998 also went through Atlanta and the Wildcats couldn’t feel any better about themselves after beating Davidson and Buffalo in the opening two rounds of the tournament last weekend.
“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.”
That confidence was hard to find after the Wildcats lost four games during the first two weeks of February, but a breakthrough got Kentucky on the right path. The Wildcats carry a five-game winning streak into the contest against the Kansas State Wildcats and have won nine of their last 10 games.
Through the tough times, the Cats simply stayed together.
“We just tried to stick with each other as much as possible,” UK guard Hamidou Diallo said. “We've all been through adversity this season, and we all know what it feels like. When we lost four in a row, we know many people had turned us against and people had counted us out, so it was a little bit of fuel and a little bit of motivation. And we just ran with it, and we just tried to keep listening to coaches and keep trying to do what we've got to do on the court.”
And now the Wildcats find themselves two wins shy of reaching the Final Four.
Keith Taylor is a veteran and award-winning sportswriter based in Richmond, Ky. He has been covering University of Kentucky athletics for daily newspapers and website publications for the past 25 years. Taylor currently is sports editor for Kentucky Today and can be reached at email@example.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.
UK Athletics Photo (of players) by Chet White