Strolling out of the house and onto his back patio — where a throng of reporters awaited on another Selection Sunday — John Calipari started talking before a question could be asked.
“How many of you looked at these brackets? Because I have not,” the UK coach said. “I just walked in the door. I know our little corner of the world is Northern Kentucky, who’s had a terrific year. Then Wichita State, who’s won 15 in a row. And Dayton, who’s coached by one of the young stars in our profession in Archie Miller. That’s our little corner.”
Calipari, who’d clearly seen at least one quarter of the bracket — the part where his Wildcats were a No. 2 seed in the South Region — continued.
“And then I think it’s North Carolina, UCLA and Butler. So that’s what I know. I don’t know another region. How’s that region?”
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“Tough,” replied one reporter.
“I mean, there’s gotta be some others that are tough, too,” Calipari said with a bit of sarcasm.
The UK coach clearly thought the Wildcats’ road to another Final Four would be a difficult one, but he was still cheerier than usual after the NCAA’s annual Selection Show.
For one, Kentucky’s first-round matchup with 15-seeded Northern Kentucky will take place in Indianapolis, the nearest opening-round site to Lexington. And that game will be on Friday, an uncommon occurrence for Calipari’s Cats.
“They gave us Friday?! I thought they’d try to make it Thursday again. Thursday at noon,” Calipari said, offering a comical eye roll at the end. Five of UK’s last six NCAA Tournaments have started on Thursday, something the UK coach has lamented after playing in SEC Tournament title games the previous Sunday.
Kentucky’s game against Northern Kentucky will be the second game of the evening session in Indianapolis on Friday. Dayton and Wichita State will tip off at 7:10 p.m. Kentucky and NKU will follow, probably a little after 9:30 p.m.
Last year, Calipari was steaming after he felt UK was seeded improperly and sent to Des Moines — “I thought it was Anchorage,” he said then — instead of a closer site. The Cats, of course, lost to Indiana in the second round. Calipari brought that up again Sunday.
“What do you want me to say? … That affects how we do,” he said. “The seeding is really important, if you want to advance.”
The coach went over this team’s résumé — briefly making the Cats’ case for a No. 1 seed but also praising Gonzaga, a one-loss team that got that fourth top seed instead. He didn’t offer much insight on Northern Kentucky, a feel-good story for the state that will now battle the Wildcats in the program’s first-ever NCAA Tournament game.
NKU (24-10) won the Horizon League Tournament — as the No. 4 seed in the league — to earn a trip to the Big Dance in its first season of eligibility after moving up from Division II a few years ago. Coached by Kentucky native John Brannen, the Norse roster includes several in-state players, including sophomore Drew McDonald, the team’s leading scorer and a former Newport Central Catholic standout.
If the Cats make it past NKU, they’ll face either No. 7-seeded Dayton — coached by the aforementioned Archie Miller, who Calipari has often spoken highly of — or No. 10-seeded Wichita State, the team that UK eliminated three years ago, ending the Shockers’ perfect season in the round of 32.
A couple of marquee rematches could be waiting for the Cats in Memphis, the site of the South Region and Calipari’s home for nine seasons before he came to Lexington.
If the bracket holds true to the seeds, UK would play UCLA, which defeated the Cats in Rupp Arena in December, in the Sweet 16. After that, Kentucky could face top-seeded North Carolina in the Elite Eight.
The Cats defeated the Tar Heels, 103-100, on Dec. 17 in Las Vegas in what was arguably the best regular-season game in college basketball this season. UK’s Malik Monk scored 47 in that one, and UNC was missing Theo Pinson, one of its key players.
Calipari implied that if he had to fill out a bracket prior to Sunday’s Selection Show, the Tar Heels might be the last team standing.
“Right now, when you talk about who’s got that team — it’s probably North Carolina,” he said. “But, that’s fine.”
That’s all too far in the future for UK’s coach. Ditto for Wildcats’ seniors Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis, who properly repeated the typical “one game at a time” mantra in interviews Sunday evening.
The road to the Final Four in Phoenix starts Friday against NKU.
“I’m not looking ahead,” Calipari said. “You guys know how I do this. We’ll focus on this first weekend, hope that we can be the best of that group. And if we are, we’ll move on.”
Kentucky’s tournament opener
Kentucky vs. Northern Kentucky
South Regional in Indianapolis
When: About 9:30 p.m. Friday
Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse
Records: Kentucky 29-5, Northern Kentucky 24-10
About Northern Kentucky
Location: Highland Heights
School colors: Black, Gold and White
Head coach: John Brannen (33-31 in two seasons as a head coach, both at NKU)
Conference: Horizon League
All-time series: Kentucky leads 1-0
Common opponents with Kentucky: Northern Kentucky lost at Valparaiso 65-58 on Jan. 29 and beat the Crusaders 82-78 at home on Feb. 26.
Other notable games this season: In its only outing against a Top 25 opponent this season, NKU lost 92-61 at West Virginia on Dec. 23. The Norse bring a six-game winning streak into the NCAA Tournament, having won the Horizon League Tournament as the league’s No. 4 seed.