UK wants focus off glare of NCAA tourney
Kentucky’s news conference on the eve of the NCAA Tournament baseball regional brought to mind a scene in the movie “Hoosiers.”
To get his players to understand basketball was still basketball even in a state tournament setting like Hinkle Fieldhouse, Coach Norman Dale (actor Gene Hackman) asked for a tape measure. It confirmed that the baskets were still 10 feet high and the foul line 15 feet from the rim.
UK, which is playing host to Ohio, Indiana and North Carolina State in the regional this weekend, spoke of the comfort that comes with familiar baseball dimensions.
“It’s just a baseball game,” infielder Connor Heady said Thursday. “First base is still 90 feet away from the next one. It is what it is.”
Later, Heady reminded reporters that the pitcher will stand the customary 60 feet, 6 inches from home plate.
The new look at Cliff Hagan Stadium might make it easy to forget that it’s just baseball games being played, starting with UK taking on Ohio at noon Friday.
Temporary bleachers were added down the left-field line and behind the left-field fence. The new seating increased capacity at “The Cliff” from about 2,500 to 4,350.
Then there are banners hung for each of the participating teams and the expectation of large crowds.
It’s real easy to get caught up, especially in the postseason. Get caught up in the fans and the stands . . . and all the media attention and everything like that. I think that Coach (Nick) Mingione and his staff have done a really good job of separating that stuff and just helping us lock back in to it’s just a game.
Connor Heady, UK infielder
“It’s real easy to get caught up, especially in the postseason,” Heady said. “Get caught up in the fans and the stands . . . and all the media attention and everything like that.
“I think that Coach (Nick) Mingione and his staff have done a really good job of separating that stuff and just helping us lock back in to it’s just a game.”
Mingione, who followed Heady and teammate Troy Squires to a makeshift news conference room set up in a building near The Cliff, acknowledged the dramatic departure from the norm.
As he stepped up to a platform containing chairs, microphones and a table (with NCAA logos on the wall behind him), Mingione told the assembled media, “Let me start by saying this is a much better, way better setup than standing on the field. This means we’re in postseason play right here.”
Mingione then said he had been trying to get the UK players to welcome the differences while concentrating on the team’s baseball routines. Toward that end, he said he did not have the players stay in hotel rooms for the tournament.
Mingione said he asked for a show of hands for how many players had family and friends coming to Lexington for the tournament. Most players raised a hand. Likewise, the players noticed the added seating, the banners and the NCAA logos on the field.
“Basically, you explain to them, there’s a lot of things going on in their world right now,” he said. “And that’s great. And that’s what’s supposed to happen, right? . . . I don’t want to downplay that. But at the same time, man, I think every one of those family members, including myself and all my friends, they’d want our focus to be on the team.”
That focus on team and baseball routine included Mingione naming Sean Hjelle, the Southeastern Conference Pitcher of the Year, as Kentucky’s starter against Ohio on Friday.
“I believe you’ve got to do whatever you can to win the first game,” Mingione said of starting his ace in the opener. “And then when we get to the second game, my philosophy and strategy is going to be to do whatever we can to win the second game. And, if we’re fortunate enough to win the second game, do whatever we can to win the third game.”
Hjelle has started the first game of weekend series all season, Mingione said. “I didn’t want to change that.”
Heady took comfort in following the same routine that made Kentucky the surprise baseball team in the SEC this season.
“We’re going to stick to our routines because what we do works . . . ,” he said. “We’re just going to do that, and we’re going to give it our best out there. And I think it’ll be good enough.”
Of course, Kentucky players are mindful of it being the NCAA Tournament. They’ve spoken openly of wanting to reach and win the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.
“We’re finally at that point where it is within our grasp . . . ,” Heady said. “We’ve been prepared all season long for this moment. It’s finally here. It’s go time.”
All-session tickets covering all six or seven games range from $55 to $85 and are on sale now.
Single-session tickets, $10 or $15, went on sale Thursday morning. Each game is one session, and the stadium will be cleared between games.
Any remaining tickets will be sold at Cliff Hagan Stadium on Friday.
NCAA Lexington Regional
Game 1: Kentucky (39-20) vs. Ohio (31-26), Noon (ESPNU)
Game 2: Indiana (33-22-2) vs. North Carolina State (34-23), 7 p.m. (WatchESPN.com)
Game 3: Loser Game 1 vs. Loser Game 2, Noon (Watch ESPN.com)
Game 4: Winner Game 1 vs. Winner Game 2, 7 p.m. (WatchESPN.com)
Game 5: Winner Game 3 vs. Loser Game 4, 1 p.m. (Watch ESPN.com)
Game 6: Winner Game 4 vs. Winner Game 5, 7 p.m. (WatchESPN.com)
Game 7: If necessary, same teams as in Game 6, 7 p.m. (WatchESPN.com)