Calipari looking to instill confidence, swagger in his team ahead of NCAA Tournament


Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari walks into the arena before the UK vs. Vanderbilt SEC Tournament quarterfinals mens basketball game on Friday, March 11, 2022, at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida. UK won 77-71. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

Hunter Shelton

In his 13th season at the helm of Kentucky, hall of famer John Calipari has clearly become known for one thing: Swagger. 

He’s now trying to instill that world renowned swag into his totally un-hip collection of 18 to 22-year-old fuddy duddy’s who just earned a No. 2 seed in the 2022 NCAA Tournament. 

“You got to have a little swagger going into this thing, having that Kentucky uniform on, you know, ‘okay, let’s go,’ but the swagger is what’s in the uniform,” he said. 

The Wildcats will wear that Kentucky Uniform inside the Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis on Thursday, March 17, as they take on the No. 15 seeded Saint Peter’s Peacocks in the Round of 64. 

For this Kentucky group, it will be the first time these players get the opportunity to partake in a bit of March Madness.

With the cancellation of the 2020 tournament, followed by the Cats missing the 2021 tourney in embarrassing fashion, even UK mainstays Keion Brooks and Davion Mintz can finally dust off their dancing shoes.

For Calipari, he knows that March is daunting. He’s focused on keeping his team in front of the task at hand, one game at a time. 

“I’m trying to keep them focused on the little pod,” he said. 

On the other side of the pod is two powerhouse mid-majors in the No. 7 seeded Murray State Racers and the No. 11 seeded San Fransisco Dons. 

With a matchup against a fellow team from the Commonwealth a possibility, it’s easy to get caught up in the potential drama of the next matchup. That usually leads to a one-way exit out of the tourney, however.

“You don’t even need to worry about San Fransisco or Murray, because we don’t know who’s winning that game,” Calipari said. “We need to worry about Saint Peter’s, and that’s how this goes. You’re playing in a pod for a weekend, that’s all you worry about, nothing else.”

Experience is one of the major things that has excited Calipari about his team this season. Just four diaper dandies make up the roster, with only TyTy Washington seeing a majority of reps. 

Kellan Grady and Mintz, also known as ‘grandad’ and ‘uncle Dave,’ headline the oldest bunch that Kentucky has had in quite some time. 

So how does experience on the court in the regular season match up to experience on the court in March? 

Calipari is hoping the answer is quite well. 

“We’ve been teaching them to be a machine so that you’re never up or down, you just keep playing,” he said. “There are games where you aren’t going to shoot it well, but you got to try and win anyway.” 

Finding a way to win is one of the trademarks of March. It doesn’t matter how you do it, you just have to get the job done. 

Calipari is well aware that in order for his team to get the job done, everyone has to remain bought in and aware of what they’re bringing to the court. 

As the Wildcats prep for the tournament, Calipari is going to sit down with each of his players one-on-one, getting everyone on the same page, as it sure seemed like the plot was lost in the SEC Tournament defeat to Tennessee. 

“I want guys to be stars at their role, stars at what they gotta do for the team” Calipari said. “We got a team that’ll fight, that’s part of it. The other part is you got to be a machine.”

There is no coach in college basketball who puts as big of an emphasis on getting ready for March as Calipari. 

Time and time again, Big Blue Nation has seen it’s Cats stumble in portions of the regular season. Regardless of how rocky it can get, there has always been one guarantee—that team is going to be ready once March hits. 

Well, here we are.

The loss to the Volunteers wasn’t exactly promising, but Calipari took most of the blame for that, citing the Cats not having a shootaround before the game, messing with the pre-game rhythm. 

How much of the loss should be assigned to not getting a few extra shots up? Who knows. 34 percent shooting is hard to come by.

One thing that Calipari wants to stick with his players is confidence. You know, that swagger.

“There are times I believe more in you than you believe in yourself, can’t be that way,” he said. “These kids have worked hard, their confidence shouldn’t be a quarter-inch thick, they work too hard. Things go bad, but you still believe in yourself.” 

Whether its belief, swag, or a mix of the two, the Wildcats will be carrying something into Indianapolis as they strive for title No. 9.

Tip-off against the Peacocks is set for 7:10 p.m. EST on Thursday, March 17.