Flushed with victory in the Southeastern Conference Tournament, Kentucky players spoke boldly about what can be accomplished in the NCAA Tournament.
“I think we’re capable of making a deep run,” Sacha Killeya-Jones said. “I think we’re capable of winning the (NCAA) tournament. And I know everybody in this locker room believes that.
“And we’re ready to go do that.”
Not a discouraging word could be heard about UK’s prospects in the NCAA Tournament. The players made the particulars of seeding and bracketing seem irrelevant.
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“We can do a ton of damage …,” Wenyen Gabriel said. “No matter where we’re seeded, no one really wants to play against us.”
PJ Washington said he sensed more triumphs to come.
“I feel we have a deep run coming,” he said. “We’re playing our best basketball right now. Everything’s clicking. Everybody knows what to do. Everybody’s playing their role and everybody’s listening to coach (John Calipari). When we’re doing that, we’re hard to beat.”
Message to doubters
UK players acknowledged that some people might not have believed that a SEC Tournament championship was in the offing.
“I think we showed a lot of people today they were wrong to doubt,” Killeya-Jones said. “A lot of people said a lot of things. But, hey, what are they going to say now?”
One doubter was Calipari.
“A month ago, I wasn’t sure we’d be in the (SEC) tournament,” he said. “I had to ask (Deputy Athletics Director) DeWayne Peevy, ‘Does everybody get to go to the SEC Tournament?’”
UK players also acknowledged the help provided by a loud and largely pro-UK crowd.
“It definitely felt like a (NCAA) tournament atmosphere,” Killeya-Jones said, “aside from the fact it also felt like a home game.”
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said the crowd provided “a little boost of energy and adrenaline in your body.”
The drop of confetti on the court moments after the game ended made an impression on Gilgeous-Alexander.
“That was the first time that I’ve ever been under confetti,” he said. “It was kind of annoying. It was irritating on the skin. I wouldn’t mind if they didn’t put confetti on anyone.”
When told that confetti might fall moments after the national championship game, Gilgeous-Alexander said, “Oh well, we’ll see about that one.”
A basketball version of political correctness run amok? Or a selfless star willing to fade to the background for the good of the team?
That was the either-or debate in one corner of the Tennessee locker room after Saturday’s semifinals of the SEC Tournament.
Tennessee forward Grant Williams expected to be the focus of a UK defense that contained Georgia star Yante Maten on Friday and Alabama star Collin Sexton on Saturday.
“You get real used to it,” Williams said. “Because, in all honesty, with the guys I have around me, if they take me out completely, if I have zero points and we win the game, I don’t mind.”
A skeptical look appeared on the face of teammate James Daniel, who sat in the stall next to Williams.
“What are you running for?” Daniel teased. “What’s he running for? He running for mayor? He’s going to come out angry if he has zero points.”
To which, Williams said, “No. We’ll get the win. We’ll be champions.”
Daniel remained unconvinced.
“He’ll be happy if we get the win,” Daniel told a reporter. “But I’ve never seen anybody being happy scoring zero points. They’re lying if they say that.”
Williams did not yield.
“I disagree,” he said. “I’m happy if we get the win. That’s the biggest thing for me.”
Williams scored 15 points and grabbed nine rebounds against UK.
Defeating Tennessee gave Kentucky its first victory over a team with a Ratings Percentage Index in the top 25. Through games on Saturday, the Vols were No. 8 in RPI.
UK’s record improved to 1-4 against top-25 RPI teams. The losses were to No. 6 Kansas, No. 13 Auburn and twice to Tennessee.
UK also improved its record against teams with a top-50 RPI to 8-9.