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Hear John Calipari praise an opponent enough, and it’s easy to become numb to it.
He’s said before nearly every home game that Opponent X could come into Rupp Arena and win. That hasn’t happened in three years. He said at the beginning of the season that 100 teams could beat his Cats. Only two have so far.
So yes, it would be easy to hear Calipari compliment Iowa State and look past it. The Cyclones are an eight-seed, after all, and have lost 10 games, and it was the OTHER team UK might have been facing Saturday (Connecticut) that worried fans.
But that would be a mistake. This Cyclones are legit.
“Folks, we have our hands full,” Calipari said, a message he had delivered about four times already in Friday’s press conference. “I mean, I can go on and on if you want. But we’ve got our hands full. This is going to be one of the toughest games we’ve played in a while.”
That’s because Iowa State has two components that prime them for an upset.
The first is Royce White. He’s a 6-foot-8, 270-pound point forward who almost came to UK — the story goes that his fear of flying stopped him from making a plane trip to UK that would have sealed the deal, but there were more serious factors involved, including the birth of his son around that time — and is the only player in the nation to lead his team in points (13.1), rebounding (9.3), assists (5.0), steals (1.1) and blocks (0.9).
It will be Iowa State, not UK, that takes the court with a player who has recorded a triple-double. White is one of 12 players to have done so this year.
The second is that Iowa State has surrounded White with good outside shooting. The Cyclones attempt a 3-pointer on 42 percent of their shots and make 38 percent of them. Friday’s word of the day around UK’s locker room was “hands high,” signifying the increased attention on closing out on shooters.
“This game is going to have to be one of our best defensive performances,” Darius Miller said.
UK, though, thinks it has the antidote for both problems. White may be a unique player, but the Cats face plenty of them in practice. Terrence Jones has a similar skill set, and Anthony Davis does wonders in terms of negating a player.
That makes the players undaunted by facing White.
“He’s not LeBron James,” Michael Kidd-Gilchrist said. “He’s not unguardable or anything like that.”
And, as for facing a team ready to launch (and make) 3-pointers, what better training than having played Florida and Vanderbilt three times each? The Cyclones will space the floor, head coach Fred Hoiberg said, in an attempt to draw Anthony Davis — who he called better at protecting the rim than any player that age he’s ever seen, and he scouted for the Minnesota Timberwolves — out from under the basket and create better looks. Calipari said that will pose a problem for UK’s interior defense. But the Cats have encountered this style before.
“They run similar actions as Vanderbilt and Florida,” Kyle Wiltjer said, who noted Calipari had pointed out the similarities to the team. “We’ll be ready for anything.”
They better be. Iowa State has been hit-or-miss this season, but when they’ve played at their best, it’s good enough to beat anyone. They won at home against Kansas and Baylor in Big 12 play.
As for the storylines you want to prescribe to this game — UK feeling the pressure of being a No. 1 seed, Iowa State viewing itself as a massive underdog with nothing to lose and everything to gain — it’s the teams that make the difference.
And Calipari does not like the team his squad has to face Saturday.
“I’ll say it again. It’s not about seeds or anything else,” Calipari said. “It’s not nerves that I’m worried about. Iowa State is a really good team.”