Kentucky ended their four-year NCAA tournament absence with a much-needed victory under John Calipari during March Madness

Kentucky ended their four-year NCAA tournament absence with a much-needed victory under John Calipari during March Madness
Kentucky ended their four-year NCAA tournament absence with a much-needed victory under John Calipari during March Madness

John Calipari was heartened by his team’s mood two nights before Kentucky’s first-round NCAA men’s tournament clash against Providence.
While the Wildcats ate supper together, there was more banter and laughing than Calipari had heard in a long time. Nobody was wearing headphones. Nobody was off to the side doing their own thing.

“I slept better last night as a result,” Calipari stated on Thursday.
Such laid-back attitudes carried over to Friday night, when Kentucky seemed unconcerned in what should have been a high-pressure game. The sixth-seeded Wildcats defeated 11th-seeded Providence, 61-53, to snap a 1,449-day streak without an NCAA tournament win.
Oscar Tshiebwe, the 2022 national player of the year who has had some ups and downs throughout his encore season, was one of Kentucky’s heroes. Tshiebwe dominated on the glass, outmuscling Providence for an incredible 25 rebounds, including 11 of Kentucky’s 18 offensive rebounds.
Antonio Reeves, an Illinois State transfer who has emerged as Kentucky’s most consistent outside shooter this season, was another Wildcats hero. Reeves scored 22 points and sank five 3-pointers, including two huge ones late in the first half to help the Wildcats build an 11-point advantage.
Providence remained within striking distance, but the Friars never got closer than four points. Tshiebwe nipped that mini-run in the bud, scoring on a putback and then grabbing another offensive rebound to set up Chris Livingston.
Kentucky’s win is a first step towards relieving some of Calipari’s strain. The Wildcats need a March run to wipe away the sour taste of the past two years’ defeats.
Kentucky struggled through its worst season in in a century two years ago, falling from the preseason top 10 to a 9-16 finish. Last year, the Wildcats suffered their worst NCAA tournament defeat in school history, losing a 26-win season with a dramatic collapse against unranked Saint Peter’s.
This season, a preseason top-five Kentucky squad was meant to pile up wins and restore order, but the Wildcats didn’t gel straight away. Despite having the reigning national player of the year, two Rivals top-15 rookies, and a slew of experienced veterans, Kentucky didn’t defeat an NCAA tournament-bound opponent until a mid-January win over Tennessee.
As Alabama defeated Kentucky by a score of 26 points in early January, the Crimson Tide student section mocked Calipari with shouts of “Cal to Texas.” Calipari was humiliated again three nights later when a Kentucky supporter was taken out of Rupp Arena after refusing to remove a placard that said, “Please go to Texas.”
Soon after, the Texas talk calmed down as Calipari continued to experiment with lineup combinations and Kentucky started to string together some victories. The Wildcats won 11 of their last 15 games before falling to Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament quarterfinals, looking like a top-20 club in the country over that two-month span.
Despite that streak, Kentucky stays unnoticed in March, which is unusual for a school that absorbs more of the limelight than almost any other in college basketball. Nobody is touting the Wildcats as a championship candidate. Over 64% of Yahoo users see third-seeded Kansas State eliminating Kentucky in the Round of 32.
“I told the boys I really appreciate this,” Calipari remarked on Wednesday. “This reminds me of my time at UMass and Memphis. ‘Oh, they didn’t play… they’re not… they didn’t… they’re not… they didn’t… they’re not…’ Well, OK. We’ll see where we end up. We’ll see what happens. But I really like this bunch.”

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