There was more chatter and laughter than Calipari had heard in awhile as the Wildcats ate dinner together. Nobody had headphones in their ears. Nobody was doing their own thing off to the side.
“I slept better last night because of that,” Calipari said Thursday.
Those relaxed vibes carried over Friday night as Kentucky looked loose during what should have been a pressure-packed game. The sixth-seeded Wildcats swatted aside 11th-seeded Providence, 61-53, at long last ending a 1,449-day drought without an NCAA tournament victory.
One hero for Kentucky was Oscar Tshiebwe, the 2022 national player of the year who has endured some up-and-down stretches during his encore season. Tshiebwe was dominant on the glass, outmuscling Providence for an astonishing 25 rebounds, including 11 of Kentucky’s 18 offensive boards.
The other hero for the Wildcats was Antonio Reeves, the Illinois State transfer who has become Kentucky’s most dependable perimeter shooter this season. Reeves scored 22 points and hit five 3-pointers, including two massive ones during a lightning-quick late first-half surge that helped the Wildcats open up an 11-point lead.
Providence stayed within striking distance, but the Friars never crept any closer than within four. Tshiebwe fittingly stuffed that mini-run, scoring on a putback and then securing another offensive rebound and setting up Chris Livingston.
Kentucky’s victory is a first step toward alleviating some of the pressure on Calipari. The Wildcats need a March run to wash away the bitter taste from the failures of the previous two-plus years.
Two years ago, Kentucky staggered through its worst season in almost a century, going from the preseason top 10 to a 9-16 face plant. Last year, the Wildcats endured their worst NCAA tournament loss in program history, squandering a 26-win season with a spectacular flop against lightly regarded Saint Peter’s.
A preseason top-five Kentucky team was supposed to stack up victories and restore order this season, but the Wildcats didn’t jell right away. Despite the presence of the reigning national player of the year, a pair of Rivals top-15 freshmen and a handful of accomplished veterans, Kentucky didn’t beat an NCAA tournament-bound opponent until a mid-January victory over Tennessee.
When Alabama demolished Kentucky by 26 points in early January, the Crimson Tide student section gleefully taunted Calipari with chants of “Cal to Texas.” Three nights later, Calipari suffered an even worse indignity when a Kentucky fan was escorted out of Rupp Arena after he refused to relinquish a sign that read, “Please go to Texas.”
The Texas chatter died down soon afterward as Calipari kept tinkering with his lineup combinations and Kentucky began to string together some wins. The Wildcats won 11 of 15 games before an SEC tournament quarterfinal loss to Vanderbilt, performing like a top-20 team nationally during that two-month stretch.
Despite that run, Kentucky remains under the radar in March, a rarity for a program that sucks up more of the spotlight than most any other in college basketball. Nobody is hyping the Wildcats as a dark horse title contender. Nearly 64% of Yahoo users have third-seeded Kansas State eliminating Kentucky in the Round of 32.
“I told the guys I like this,” Calipari said Wednesday. “This is kind of like my UMass and Memphis days. ‘Ah, they didn't play ... they're not ... they didn't ... they're not …’ All right. We'll see where we are. We'll see. But I'm liking this group.”