INDIANAPOLIS — So how worried should Kentucky basketball fans be after Friday night’s ugly, 79-70 win over Northern Kentucky in the first round of the 2017 NCAA Tournament? The one where the second-seeded Wildcats saw an 18-point lead shrivel to seven against the 15th-seeded Norse with two minutes to go?
“It was good enough to win,” sophomore guard Isaiah Briscoe said after delivering 17 points, 8 rebounds, 2 blocks, 2 steals and 2 assists. “We can’t beat everybody by 20, 30 points. Teams come out and they fight hard, they play hard against us. We’re kids still growing up and it happens (but) we came out with the win, so everybody’s fine.”
He stopped short of an Aaron Rodgers-esque R-E-L-A-X, but that seemed to be the theme in Kentucky’s locker room after an underwhelming March Madness debut. While “fine” is not an especially reassuring word, coach John Calipari also used it more than once in a brisk postgame press conference.
“We’re going to be fine,” he said, pointing in part to a game that ended well after midnight. “A college kid shouldn’t be playing at 12:30. We shouldn’t be playing this late.”
But NKU had the same schedule, six fewer 5-star recruits and no one taller than 6-foot-7, and the underdog still managed to take the fight to Kentucky (30-5). The Norse shot 47.2 percent in the second half to the Wildcats’ 38.5 percent.
The stat sheet did not record each team’s energy, but NKU objectively, overwhelming had the edge in that category.
“You can’t just think that there are certain things you can do in each round that goes by (because it gets) tougher and tougher and tougher,” said Calipari, who screamed himself blue in the face Friday night on the sideline. “I was coaching them to say, ‘This is not how you do this.’”
So are the Cats not fine heading into Sunday’s second-round game against Wichita State? That would be bad, because the Shockers (31-4) are far better than their No. 10 seed and they’re out for revenge for Kentucky ending their previously perfect season in the 2014 NCAA Tournament.
No, no, they’re fine, the Wildcats insisted.
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“Nice little wake-up call,” Briscoe said, “to let you know teams are not going to stop fighting.”
Speaking of alarms, don’t sound one for Kentucky, freshman point guard De’Aaron Fox said after his team-high 19 points against Northern Kentucky. Fellow freshman Bam Adebayo went for 15 points and a career-high 18 rebounds. So it wasn’t all bad.
“We know we gotta be better,” Fox said. “We’ve been able to turn things around — sometimes it takes longer than others — but let’s not worry about this game. Just throw this game out and kind of, I guess, start over.”
Seniors Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins, who combined for 15 points, 9 rebounds, 3 blocks, 3 assists and 2 steals Friday, agreed with freshman star Malik Monk, who missed all six of his 3-point attempts but remained optimistic despite what sure smells like a slump the last five games.
“The first (NCAA Tournament) game is always the hardest,” Monk said.
“We’ve still got a young team, a lot of players who haven’t been here before, just kind of getting a little nerves and jitters out,” Willis said. “Sunday, I think we’ll have a little better shooting night, be more familiar with the court and everything. That stuff does matter a lot.
“We just got our feet under us and we’ll just take it from there.”