It was another vintage performance at the Calipari estate in Lexington on Sunday.
The Kentucky Wildcats had finished off Tennessee for a conference tournament title just a few hours before in St. Louis, and — by the time the coach and his Cats strolled into the living room — they already knew their NCAA Tournament fate.
John Calipari, who will lead No. 5-seed UK against No. 12-seed Davidson on Thursday in Boise, Idaho, took a seat on the couch near his kitchen and let ’er rip.
“I didn’t see all of it,” he said of the NCAA Selection Show, “but you guys … is ours like the toughest again? Like, by far? Is anyone in here surprised? We’re not playing on Thursday, right? Because we just got done playing today. We’re playing on Thursday? Oh, but we’re close?”
A reporter informed him the Cats would start in Boise, something Calipari already knew.
“Anchorage or Boise?” he quipped. “It is what it is. They’re not going to make it easy for us, and they can all say, ‘This is all by the numbers and all that.’ OK.”
Year 2 of UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart’s stint on the NCAA Selection Committee clearly hasn’t done much to calm Calipari’s conspiracy theories.
Truth is, the Cats ended up pretty much exactly where the bracket experts thought they would. Most had UK seeded as a No. 5 coming into the weekend — ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi actually had them as a 6 early in the SEC Tournament — and Kentucky was almost sure to be starting the NCAA tourney in either Boise or San Diego. (That’s where all the No. 4 and No. 5 seeds were slotted, based on the NCAA bracketing procedures).
Going into Sunday, the Bracket Matrix website — a composite of bracket projections across the Internet — had Kentucky as the No. 19 overall team in the tournament. The NCAA Selection Committee placed them at No. 17 overall, the best of the 5 seeds. UK’s first-round opponent, Davidson, which is only in the tournament because it upset Rhode Island in the Atlantic-10 finals Sunday, was No. 48 overall — the “worst” of the 12 seeds.
A potential second-round matchup looms against Pac-12 champ Arizona, who must defeat 13-seeded Buffalo first. Arizona was No. 16 overall on the NCAA’s seed list, the lowest of the 4 seeds.
If the Cats make it out of Boise, they get to play in Atlanta — always a UK-friendly spot — and No. 1 overall seed Virginia, deemed the best team in the Big Dance, would be the most likely opponent in the Sweet 16 there.
The possible UK-Arizona matchup would be a marquee event, matching Calipari’s young Wildcats against DeAndre Ayton — possibly the No. 1 pick in this year’s NBA Draft — and the talented Wildcats from Tucson.
“They’re a good team,” Cal said of Arizona. “I’m surprised they were a 4. How did they drop to a 4? Didn’t they win their tournament? Did Davidson win their tournament? Did Virginia win their tournament? Oh, wow. Did we win our tournament? Wow.”
As the UK coach spread the sarcasm from the couch, his players were huddled around each other a few feet away in the living room. They had catered meals. They all wore hats that said, “SEC Champs.” They were talking, joking, having a ball.
Once Calipari was done with the local reporters, he walked over near the living room and got the attention of some players, who were sitting on the coach’s furniture, eating food while hovering over the Calipari carpet.
“Guys, don’t you get anything on that floor,” he said.
There was a brief pause, as if they were wondering whether he was serious.
Freshman guard Hamidou Diallo broke the silence: “OK, Dad,” he said with a grin.
Calipari might have been wound a little tight by what he saw as another unfair draw, but — as usual — his players just wanted a good meal and a little rest.
“We knew it would be a tough journey,” Diallo said. “We knew we’d have to play some great teams. Right now, we’re just looking forward to playing Davidson and just trying to get us prepared for them as much as possible.”
As the players boarded a bus back to campus, Calipari jumped on ESPN for a live interview.
The coach said he was in the car with his wife, Ellen, on the way from the airport to the house, when the brackets were announced.
“My phone blew up, and it was like one after the other,” he said. “I didn’t know there were so many ways to say, ‘You got screwed again.’ That’s what kept hitting my phone. And I’m like, ‘What just happened? We couldn’t be in the play-in game. Did they put a site in Anchorage?’”
The ESPN panelists, clearly entertained with Calipari’s antics, laughed throughout the interview, which ended with altitude jokes and Idaho restaurant recommendations. Calipari laughed along with them.
“I’m over here dying!” the UK coach said. “I’m here dying, and you guys are just making jokes, having fun. That’s great. That’s great.”
Kentucky’s tournament opener
Kentucky vs. Davidson
What: NCAA Tournament South Regional
When: 7:10 p.m. Thursday
Where: Taco Bell Arena at Boise State University
Records: Kentucky 24-10, Davidson 21-11
Location: Davidson, N.C.
School colors: Red and black
Head coach: Bob McKillop (553 and 339 in 29 seasons at Davidson and overall)
Conference: Atlantic 10
NCAA berth: Automatic (Davidson won the Atlantic 10 Tournament)
All-time series: Kentucky leads 1-0 (UK won 75-55 on March 14, 1986, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at Charlotte, N.C.)
Common opponents with Kentucky this season: None
Other notable games this season: Davidson played four teams currently ranked in the AP Top 25. It lost to No. 22 Nevada 81-68, No. 12 North Carolina 85-75, No. 1 Virginia 80-60 and No. 25 Rhode Island 72-59. It beat No. 25 Rhode Island 63-61 in the final game of the regular season and 58-57 in Sunday’s Atlantic 10 Tournament finals.