GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) — Kentucky was back in the NCAA Tournament, seeking to move past a stunning exit a year earlier and playing with the expectations that come as one of college basketball’s blueblood programs.
Maybe that explained why Antonio Reeves looked over at coach John Calipari after missing a few early shots in the Wildcats’ first-round win.
“What did I tell you?” Calipari asked afterward.
“Keep shooting,” Reeves answered.
“You better keep shooting,” Calipari said.
Every coach is dealing with the challenge of managing the mindset of their players alongside the X's and O's while navigating March Madness. But that challenge is particularly acute at Kentucky, which spent a season spent grappling with last March’s loss to No. 15 seed Saint Peter’s, frustration that built through midseason struggles and the overall pressure to win at an elite level — at all times, no exceptions.
It's why Calipari has been preaching a play-free mentality and going out of his way to take a positive and encouraging tone throughout the Wildcats' stay in Greensboro for the East Region games. The next comes Sunday against Kansas State for a spot in the Sweet 16.
“I want them to have a great experience,” Calipari said Saturday. “Don't listen to anybody try to steal your joy. ... Just go have fun. Let's see where this goes if we have enjoyment. If two teams are enjoying the game and playing well, probably who has the ball last wins.”
Sixth-seeded Kentucky (22-11) passed its first NCAA test with Friday’s win against Providence, a performance highlighted by two-time Associated Press All-American Oscar Tshiebwe snaring 25 rebounds in an indomitable performance that marked the biggest output in the tournament since 1977.
Yet this trip has been as much about the off-court details for Calipari, a Hall of Famer who won the 2012 NCAA title and is trying to get Kentucky back to its first Final Four since 2015.
He has mentioned the good feeling he got from listening to the players' excited chatter amongst themselves during a team meal instead of being silently immersed in reading their cell phones or tuning out the world by putting on headphones.
And when Jacob Toppin referenced “relief” from winning that first tournament game, Calipari later circled back to point out the feeling for advancing in the NCAAs should always be joy.
This is the vibe that Calipari is trying to inject in his locker room in hopes of unburdening his players from outside expectations. He has empowered Toppin and junior forward Lance Ware as team captains to take on leadership, while Toppin said that has freed Calipari to be even more of a “cheerleader.”
Perhaps the steps are working. At minimum, his players are listening.
“I feel like we’re doing a better job now because obviously it’s win or go home,” Toppin said, “and we play our best basketball when we’re not thinking, when we're just playing loose and free.”
It's a welcome sign for the Wildcats after an at-times bumpy season. Kentucky started ranked No. 4 in the AP Top 25, but opened 10-6 — including some frustrated grumbling from Tshiebwe in January and angst from a a rabid fan base — and fell out of the poll by early January.
Kentucky returned to the poll later in the season and won 11 of 15 games to close the Southeastern Conference schedule before a one-and-done showing in the SEC Tournament by losing to Vanderbilt.
As Ware put it: “We went through the ringer already.”
“You may say it’s only a game,” Calipari said. “Put yourself in their shoes. Be 18, 19 years old and read the stuff on social media that is so nasty, it’s ridiculous. ... None of you in here dealt with that stuff, but they have.”
That's where Calipari's “cheerleader” comes in. Reeves pointed to Calipari's message after those early misses against Providence as the springboard for the senior on the way to 22 points with five 3-pointers.
“It just helps a lot, the coaches believing in you, the players believing in you,” Reeves said. “That's all you really need when you're a basketball player.”
It worked for one night. The Providence win marked not only a chance to move past the Saint Peter's upset, but it also marked the program's first win in the NCAA Tournament since reaching the Elite Eight in 2019.
Now it’s about carrying it forward. If they can, the Wildcats might be sticking around a while.
“We’ve got more confidence and we know we’ve got to stay together,” Tshiebwe said. “We’ve got to get enough sleep, stay away from phones, stay away from social media, stay locked in. That’s my mentality right now.”
Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at https://twitter.com/aaronbeardap
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