Kentucky considered Sunday as its graduation day after the team beat Wichita State to advance to the South Region semifinals.
“Being a freshman is out the door,” De’Aaron Fox said. “If we lose a game, I don’t want people saying, ‘Oh, they were freshmen. They couldn’t do this. They couldn’t do that.’
“That’s done with.”
Fox and fellow freshmen Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo validated those words in beating a largely older, more experienced Wichita State team 65-62. The game demanded poise and how Ernest Hemingway defined courage: grace under pressure.
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Kentucky’s freshmen delivered.
Bam Adebayo recalled UK Coach John Calipari’s words.
“Cal says you’ve got to mature,” he said. “So he said at the end of the season, you all are going to be like sophomores. It’s at the end of the season, so we feel like sophomores now.
“We’ve got the routine. We’ve just got to go out there and execute.”
It wasn’t an all-freshman show. Derek Willis played 33 minutes, the second-most he’s played this season and fourth-most of his career. He attributed the growing maturity of the freshmen to Kentucky’s culture.
“It’s just our mentality as players,” he said. “Malik’s got a swagger. He’s real confident about himself.”
UK wins, but …
Fox suggested that Kentucky’s victories over Northern Kentucky and Wichita State here were not unqualified successes.
“Even though we didn’t necessarily like the way we won, you’ve got to be happy with advancing in the NCAA Tournament,” he said.
When asked what he didn’t like about UK’s performances, Fox said, “I feel we didn’t play to the best of our abilities. We didn’t score the way we should have. Defensively, I feel we were much better.”
During the game, Fox bent over and re-tied both shoes while Kentucky had the ball.
“Sometimes I don’t double-knot it,” he said of his laces. “I didn’t today at all. … I’d rather take the offensive play off (to tie his shoes) than take a defensive play off.”
During an SEC Tournament game, Fox slipped twice early. He changed shoes, never slipped again and played well.
Fox said he brings three pairs of shoes as backups to each game.
Gabriel’s quick trigger
Wenyen Gabriel had a quick trigger finger. He took five shots in seven minutes against Wichita State. He took three shots in nine minutes against Northern Kentucky on Friday.
Gabriel said a hesitation to shoot early in the game made him determined to take the initiative later.
“I feel like I passed up my first shot,” he said. “… I was wide open. I should have shot the first one. So the next shots I was more aggressive.”
Assertiveness did not lead to points. Gabriel missed all five shots against Wichita State and all three against NKU.
With Kentucky beating Wichita State, the Southeastern Conference could boast of six victories in its teams’ first seven NCAA Tournament games.
“It’s great,” said Mark Womack, the SEC’s executive associate commissioner. “… To get five (bids) and have the success we’ve had, that’s the vision of our coaches, our athletic directors and our commissioner (Greg Sankey).”
The SEC has made a public effort to raise its national profile in men’s basketball. Womack said the NCAA Tournament is an ideal place to do just that.
“We’ve taken our lumps,” he said of the SEC receiving only three bids in three of the past four years. “College basketball is a sport that you’re judged by postseason success.”
Going into the game, Missouri Valley teams had a record of 14-9 in the NCAA Tournament since 2012. The winning percentage of .609 ranked fourth best in that time, and was largely a product of Wichita State’s 10-4 record.
Buoyed by Kentucky (11-3), SEC teams had the best record in that time: 40-18. That was a winning percentage of .689.
The ACC had the second-best winning percentage (.648). The Big Ten was third-best (.629).
No UK player made the final cut for candidates for the Naismith Award, which the Atlanta Tipoff Club gives to its national player of the year.
The final four candidates are Josh Hart of Villanova, Frank Mason III of Kansas, Caleb Swanigan of Purdue and Lonzo Ball of UCLA.
Hart (Big East), Mason (Big 12) and Swanigan (Big Ten) were their conferences’ players of the year.