ATLANTA — Some would call it being paranoid, but Nick Saban would describe John Calipari’s portrayal of “the media” as an evil monolith sent to destroy the program by using good, old-fashioned teenage mind manipulation. To that end, Calipari ripped a page right out of Saban’s Dynasty 101 manifesto on Wednesday.
“My challenge is making sure these kids don’t drink that poison,” Calipari said, channeling the Alabama football boss. “That poison being [the idea] 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 that poison, it’ll be a dogfight on Thursday and let’s see what happens.”
Calipari’s fifth-seeded Kentucky basketball team will face ninth-seeded Kansas State in the Sweet 16 here on Thursday night after having beaten a No. 12 and No. 13 seed to get here — with either a No. 7 (Nevada) or No. 11 seed (Loyola-Chicago) waiting in the Elite Eight.
That would be one of the easiest paths to a Final Four ever, in terms of seeds beaten, and Calipari’s team suddenly is the overwhelming favorite to win the South Region after its top 4 seeds were upset on the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament. The notion that Kentucky faces a path of least resistance is not some booby trap set by “the media,” but no coach this side of Saban is better at convincing his team otherwise.
“We kind of expected that,” sophomore forward Sacha Killeya-Jones said. “Over the course of the year, we’ve heard the whole country tell us we’re not this and we’re not that — then we win games, exceed expectations, beat teams they say we can’t beat, and now all of a sudden we’re this [favorite] and we’re the best team. Nobody in this locker room has listened to media all year, no offense to y’all, and we’re not listening to anybody now.
“We know with some teams getting upset, they’re going to try to gas our head up.”
Calipari called a team meeting on Sunday night, after Nevada roared back from a 22-point deficit to upset No. 2 seed Cincinnati, to nip that in the bud.
“If you think, ‘Oh, we’ve got this, this is going to be easy,’ you will lose in this tournament,” Calipari warned.
He knows Kansas State will be fueled by the disrespect that is implied when the national conversation about this regional is focused on whether Kentucky can avoid tripping over its own feet on the cake walk to San Antonio. He also knows that just five weeks ago his young team — seven freshmen and two sophomores make up the entire rotation — had lost four straight games and looked cooked.
Now they’re the overwhelming favorite to reach a Final Four?
“I feel like a week ago we were the underwhelming — the opposite of that,” sophomore forward Wenyen Gabriel said. “Either way, it doesn’t matter what the media perceives. You can see what happened to the other team that was the No. 1 seed in our region [Virginia]. They were the overwhelming favorite [and became the first 1 seed to lose to a 16 seed], so anything can happen.”
The obvious danger here for Kentucky (26-10) is a dramatic shift in status and, potentially, mindset. Back when the Wildcats had lost four in a row and owned a sub-.500 SEC record, it was easy to get into an us-against-the-world frame of mind. Now that they’ve won nine of 10, including a dominant performance at the SEC Tournament, not so much.
“Sometimes being the underdog helps you with your mentality, understanding that you have to go in and fight, especially with a young team,” Gabriel said. “Now, the battle becomes to make sure we continue to fight and don’t feed into being the favorite. There’s still a chip [on the shoulder], because if you lose the season is over. We’re trying to win a national title here, and it’s not over just because you’re the favorite.”
Having been on the losing end of a North Carolina buzzer-beater that bounced Kentucky unceremoniously from the tournament in the Elite Eight last year, Gabriel plans to share with his younger teammates this week just how sudden and stinging their next defeat would be — and how desperately they must fight to avoid suffering one. He watched the stars of that team sob on each other’s shoulders after the last game and then go off on their own to the NBA.
“We’ve been through a lot this season and we’re finally starting to get it now. There’s no time to get complacent. How great would it feel to end the season with a championship? Some of us might not play together as this one group again,” Gabriel said. “We’ve all been in that moment where we’ve been playing bad personally, been down in the rabbit hole, and we’ve fought our way out. It’s like we struggled together, and for us to be up right now is great for us to be together as one.
“We feel like we’re brothers now, and it’s up to us to fight for each other and keep going forward.”
If Saban could hear that, he’d smile. Well, no, he wouldn’t, but Calipari would.