Two nights before Kentucky’s first-round NCAA men’s tournament matchup against Providence, John Calipari was encouraged by his team’s behavior.
Calipari had more chatter and laughter than the Wildcats had had dinner together in a while. No one had headphones in their ears. No one was talking on his own behalf.
“I slept better last night because of it,” Calipari said Thursday.
Those relaxed vibes were carried over to a loose look Friday night during Kentucky’s pressure-filled basketball game. The sixth-seeded Wildcats defeated 11th-seeded Providence, 61–53, to end a long drought of 1,449 days without an NCAA tournament win.
A hero for Kentucky was Oscar Tshebwe, a 2022 national draftee who has had some ups and downs during his encore season. Shibwe dominated the glass, holding Providence to 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 reliable perimeter shooter this season. Reeves scored 22 points and hit five 3-pointers, including two massive late first-half lightning strikes to help the Wildcats open up an 11-point lead.
Providence stayed within striking distance, but the Friars never came closer than four. Tshibwe filled that mini-run well, scoring on a put-back and then grabbing another offensive rebound and setting up Chris Livingston.
The Kentucky win is the first step toward taking some of the pressure off John Calipari. The Wildcats need a March run to wash away the bitter taste of the failures of the past two-plus years.
Two years ago, Kentucky staggered through its worst season in nearly a century, going from a preseason Top 10 to a 9-16 face plant. Last year, the Wildcats endured their worst NCAA tournament loss in program history, capping a 26-win season with a resounding flop against lightly regarded St. Peter’s.
A pre-season top-five Kentucky team needed to pile up the wins this season and restore order, but the Wildcats did not immediately do so. Despite the presence of a national player of the year, a pair of top-15 freshmen from Rivals and a pair of accomplished veterans, Kentucky did not beat an NCAA tournament-bound opponent until a win over Tennessee in mid-January.
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 even more humiliation when a Kentucky fan was escorted from Rupp Arena after he refused to relinquish a sign that read, “Please go to Texas.”
Calipari continued to tinker with his lineup combinations, and Kentucky started to pick up some wins. The Wildcats performed like a top-20 team nationally during that two-month stretch, winning 11 of 15 games before losing to Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals.
Despite that run, Kentucky remains under the radar in March, a rarity for a program that sucked up more spotlight in college basketball than any other. No one is looking at the Wildcats as dark horse title contenders. About 64% of Yahoo users have third seed Kansas State eliminating Kentucky in the Round of 32.
“I told the boys I loved it,” Calipari said Wednesday. “It’s like my UMass and Memphis days. ‘Ah, they didn’t play…they didn’t…they didn’t…they didn’t…’ Well. We’ll see where we are. We’ll see. But I am liking this group.