UK is one win from being three wins away from the ultimate goal.
A Sweet 16 rematch with Indiana highlights the weekend slate of NCAA Tournament games. It’s one of the best possible Sweet 16 games UK could have drawn, in terms of creating excitement.
Except John Calipari wants his team focused on themselves, not the Hoosier faces that, last time they met, ended in giddy celebration at Assembly Hall.
“They want to get out ahead of this, having to play Indiana,” Calipari said in an NCAA release. “I’m telling our team, forget about this tournament. Just play basketball.”
Calipari has been reiterating that message the entire year. With the burden of elevated national championship expectations hanging on this UK team since the beginning of the season, the players have been combating that feeling since the start.
“I think the main point is we have a lot of fun with everything we do,” Darius Miller said. “You see us laughing and smiling on the court, clapping, and you see all the emotion we leave on the court. I think that’s one of the main differences (with this year compared to the previous two). Not — I don’t want to say differences, but it’s kind of emphasized this year on how much we do those things.”
Can that difference be part of the results turning out differently, as well? Can UK continue the progress toward winning a national title, from Elite Eight to Final Four to … well, Calipari doesn’t want to think that far ahead.
Instead, the focus is on Indiana.
The Hoosiers are led by Cody Zeller, a talented freshman post player in his own right. He leads the team with 15.5 points and 6.5 rebounds per game, and shoots 62.2 percent.
His production reads like a lesser version of Anthony Davis, who leads his team with 14.3 points and 10.1 rebounds (oh, and those 4.6 blocks) per game, and shoots 63.6 percent.
“Just can’t wait to go out there and see what happens,” Davis said of the matchup. “We’re both great players, and we both work hard. Let’s just go out there and have fun.”
One of the most important parts of this game will be Davis avoiding foul trouble. He must be in the game to change the game, and he usually does. He hasn’t picked up four fouls since Dec. 10 — which was, of course, the Indiana game. He was limited to 24 minutes in that game, a number that, if increased, could make all the difference.
Calipari said he’s been stressing to his team not to foul. With a short rotation, giving up two points is a minor setback compared to losing one of his six best players for an extended stretch of an NCAA Tournament game.
“It’s not football,” Calipari said. “We’ll score seven seconds later. If you broke down, let him score. Don’t foul. I just say it over and over.”
At this point, the storylines (revenge!) are done. It’s time for the game. One win to be three wins away from the ultimate goal.
“The only promise we can make to any of our fans,” Calipari said, “is we’re going to do our best.”
UK fans, conversely, hope — expect? — their best is good enough to win it all.