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John Calipari held a press conference in Atlanta on Wednesday in which he previewed the road ahead for his Kentucky Wildcats. Calipari was a little late to his pre-scheduled Q&A session — which sent event officials into a small panic — but once he arrived, he had lots to say about his team and the tournament.
1. “If they drink that poison, we’ll be done Thursday.”
While most of the outside world has already penciled Kentucky into its Final Four bracket, given the Cats’ new road to San Antonio, John Caliapri is faced with the challenge of keeping his players focused and at task. It would be easy for each of the players to read into all that has been written about them this week, but if they were to buy into the “easy draw” narrative surrounding them, they’d likely overlook a very good Kansas State team on Thursday, which could mean goodbye from the tournament.
Calipari called the outside noise ‘poison,’ by opening his press conference in saying, “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.”
2. “In 2014, the nose of the plane hit the fence.”
Calipari has used an airplane analogy a lot this season, going back to last fall when he said something along the lines of: “I hope we don’t run out of runway before this thing takes off.” (I think that’s how it went.) What he meant by that was, he knew his young team would eventually come together to reach their potential, but wondered if they could do it before running out of time (or runway) before that happened.
He brought up the airplane analogy again on Wednesday when talking about his 2013-2014 team that came together at the very last minute, and eventually reached the title game. “In 2014, the nose of the plane hit the fence,” he said. “We got better and it kind of clicked in the tournament, and we started playing well in our tournament. They gave us a crazy seed, and we ended up beating a No. 1 seed, and then the rest we kind of rolled from.”
3. “My guess is no, but it would be nice to have him there.”
You probably don’t need me to tell you that quote is about Jarred Vanderbilt, Kentucky’s injury-ridden forward who has been sidelined since before the SEC tournament. In Calipari’s daily update on Vanderbilt’s status, he said, “I’m going to watch him today in the shootaround. He just keeps coming (and saying) ‘I can do this.'”
“It’s hard to play a guy that’s going to play 80, 90 percent in these kind of environments,” Cal explained. “It’s just hard. The game is played at a high level. When you talk Kansas State, they’re physical, they play hard, they’ll fly, and then if they don’t have it, they grind. You know, it’s hard walking into a game like that. They lead their league in steals. With the way they play, which they cover that lane.”
“My guess is no, but it would be nice to have him there. Like last game, we had foul trouble. You have that guy there that you could put in, would be nice.”
4. “(Shai Gilgeous-Alexander) has a scorer’s mentality.”
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander will be one of the top two or three point guards selected in the upcoming draft, which is crazy considering: 1) he wasn’t a McDonald’s All-American; and 2) he wasn’t even ranked as one of the best point guards in this freshman class.
So did Cal see Shai becoming a star before it happened?
He wouldn’t exactly say, but he did say: “His length and his size set him apart. Learning to be that point guard — he has a scorer’s mentality. Learning to get him to create for others, to lead in a way by how hard you play and how much you are a servant-leader for everybody else, to limit turnovers. But what you can’t do for a young man like that is put in the time and the work, 7:00 workouts, shooting, best in the weight room that we had. Watched film with the coaches, like dragged you in, please watch this with me. Never missed a class. Never late for a tutor. And worked as hard as anybody I’ve had in practice. Bring it to the level that he can bring it every day. Tried to tell the rest of the team, do you see what’s happened for him. And he doesn’t play for himself, he plays for the team. But this team needs him to do stuff. Like we need you to go get some baskets now and then.”
It’d be nice to have more Shai Gilgeous-Alexanders every year; unfortunately, they don’t come around often, anywhere.
5. “Right now, seeds don’t matter.”
When asked to clarify comments he made earlier in the week about how seeding doesn’t matter, Cal made sure to say seeding does matter to start the tournament, but not as much once teams advance.
“The initial seeding does matter,” he explained. “Like if you’re a 1 seed, you have a big advantage over a 2, and a 2 has an advantage over a 3, and the 3 has an advantage over the 4. And I always say if you mis-seed somebody, you make somebody an 8 that should be a 5, you’re not doing damage to the 8, it’s who is the 8 playing. That team just got damaged. They shouldn’t have been playing an 8, they should have been — that 8, that’s a 5.”
“But after the tournament unfolds, right now, seeds don’t matter. 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 of 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.”