March Madness: Back home during the NCAAs, Calipari hoping Kentucky can mirror his blue-collar roots

Wed, Mar 20, 2024
NCAAB News (AP)

March Madness: Back home during the NCAAs, Calipari hoping Kentucky can mirror his blue-collar roots

PITTSBURGH (AP) - John Calipari's blue-collar roots still run deep.

Even now, nearly 40 years after the Calipari left western Pennsylvania for good to begin a head coaching career that's made him a millionaire many times over, a national champion and a Hall of Famer, the lessons instilled in him at a young age growing up in Moon Township remain.

"You were taught, there's nothing in this world that's going to be given to you," the longtime Kentucky coach said Wednesday. "You're going to have to go take what you want, and if you don't work, you will not eat."

That inner hunger remains. Even now, six weeks past his 65th birthday, Calipari insists the drive that's made him a somewhat rogueish winner wherever he's gone remains fresh.

The trick these days is finding a way to impart that ethos down to a group of talented college kids who practice in top-flight facilities and are awash in name, image and likeness opportunities, some of them using Kentucky as a stopover on their way to the NBA.

Calipari insists the third-seeded Wildcats (23-9) - who open the first-round on Thursday against 14th-seeded Oakland (23-11) - have the work ethic required to navigate the next three weeks. Maybe just as importantly, he believes his team has the depth too.

Seven different Wildcats have topped 25 points this season, giving Calipari perhaps the most vital tool in a coach's motivational aresenal: options.

"For a couple years, if one or two players played poorly, I didn't have subs, you left them in and you end up losing," Calipari said. "And I'm not just talking the NCAA tournament. Other games. With this group, if these two or three are not playing well, I'll just play these five or six, and we'll run with them."

Maybe, but it's also led to a wildly uneven season in which Kentucky can look like one of the most dazzling team in the country one night, and checked out defensively the next.

A stretch in the middle of the season in which the Wildcats dropped five of nine was followed by a five-game winning streak that included a blowout victory over Alabama and a road triumph at Tennessee.

That momentum slowedly, however, in the SEC tournament, where Texas A&M stunned Kentucky in the quarterfinals.

Calipari's response: he took his players bowling.

"We split them up and let them compete and laugh and eat," Calipari said. "Now let's regroup and get back after it."

It's been nine years since Kentucky reached a Final Four and a dozen since the Wildcats cut down the nets at the end of the NCAA tournament, a lifetime at a program where success is only measured by when seasons end.

The second-highest paid coach in the country is well aware of this. He's doing his best to siphon the pressure away from his players.

"My job right now is to just, one: every year, make sure they're playing their best basketball in March," Calipari said. "Second thing is take it off them, take it on your own shoulders. Let them be young players and let them play and have fun."

Maybe, but that pressure in some ways is a privlege too. It's one of the reasons freshman guard Reed Sheppard always wanted to play for the Wildcats. The son of Jeff Sheppard - who won a national title at Kentucky in 1998 - and Stacey Sheppard - one of the school's all-time leading scorers - is well-versed in how it goes this time of year when you play for his parents' alma mater.

"We know we have a target on our back," said Sheppard, who is averaging 14.2 points off the bench. "And that's what's so special about this group and about coming to Kentucky is as you expect it. You've just really got to stick together and stay connected as a team."

It's a connection that's served Oakland throughout a year in which Grizzlies won both the Horizon League regular season and tournament championships to return to the NCAAs for the first time since 2011.

Greg Kampe, finishing his 40th year at Oakland, knows how these things work. If the Grizzlies can keep it close, everyone inside PPG Paints Arena not wearing Blue will find themselves pulling for the team led by the longest-tenured coach in Division I.

"If we play well tomorrow night -- and we're capable, I'm telling you, we're capable -- and it gets down to a close game, I've gotta believe, as big as Big Blue Nation is, there's going to be a lot of people in here that they don't want to play Kentucky in the next round; they'd much rather play Oakland," Kampe said. "So if we can do our job, we'll see that happen again like it did 12 years ago."

MIND GAMES

North Carolina State reached the NCAAs by winning five games in five days to capture the ACC title last weekend.

Now the 11th-seeded Wolfpack (22-14) have to find a way to recharge not just physically but emotionally before facing sixth-seeded Texas Tech (23-10).

Coach Kevin Keatts, who called his team's stunning run to a conference title a "revenge tour," admitted it may take some mental gymnastics to get his team properly engaged.

"So I kind of got to trick them and tell them I think it's somebody else," Keatts said. "Maybe we point out that it's another team in our league and they're very similar to that."

The Red Raiders are hopeful 7-foot center Warren Washington will be available. Washington, who missed eight of Texas Tech's last nine games with an ankle injury, said he expects to play. Coach Grant McCasland called Williams a "game-time" decision.

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness

WILL GRAVES Graves is a national writer for The Associated Press, based in Pittsburgh. He covers the NFL, MLB, NHL, the Olympics and major college sports. twitter facebook mailto "
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