When the South Region supposedly opened up, Kentucky closed ranks.
UK Coach John Calipari called a team meeting shortly after Nevada’s improbable comeback Sunday night eliminated second-seed Cincinnati, which meant the last of the region’s top four seeds had been beaten in the first week of this year’s NCAA Tournament.
That hadn’t happened in any region since the seeding of teams began in the 1979 tournament. The immediate assumption: five-seed Kentucky would breeze to the Final Four.
“He just basically told us not to watch games,” Kevin Knox said Wednesday of the message Calipari delivered in the meeting. “Don’t listen to the media. Don’t go for any of that stuff.
“He told us: keep away from the poison.”
This was not a new message, not for arguably the least experienced — and most impressionable? — team in college basketball history.
“We’ve been talking about that the whole way along,” Wenyen Gabriel said. “Sunday was just to clarify it. You’ll hear from the media that you’re the favorite. Don’t buy into it.”
While buying into the favorite role was optional, hearing about it has been inescapable.
Television analysts all but declared Kentucky’s advancement to the Final Four. Turner Sports analyst Chris Webber, who is working the South Region telecasts for CBS, said much the same thing.
“I think Kentucky can make it to the Final Four . . . ,” Webber said after watching UK’s practice Wednesday. “If Kentucky prepares, more than likely they’ll get to the Final Four than (they will) lose the first game.”
Given the current climate, this made Webber seem cautious and sober-minded.
In terms of betting odds on what teams are most likely to win a region this week, Bovada gave most-favored status to Kentucky. UK was the online gambling site’s odds-on favorite to win the South Region at 5-6.
The odds for other region favorites were 2-3 (Duke in the Midwest), 1-1 (Villanova in the East) and 7-5 (Gonzaga in the West).
Apparently, runaway expectation of the Final Four engulfed the Big Blue Nation. Searches for travel to San Antonio on Travelocity from people in Kentucky increased by a “mind-boggling” 150 percent this week, Keith Nowak of Travelocity wrote in an email.
The second-largest increase this week was a 90 percent spike from people in West Virginia.
Kansas State, the other team in UK’s Sweet 16 game here Thursday, acknowledged its status as the Washington Generals to Kentucky’s Globetrotters. For K-State, this is more of the same.
“We embrace it,” injured star Dean Wade said. “We were picked eighth (in the Big 12), and ended up fourth. We know people doubt us. But we’ve been dealing with it all season.
“People don’t respect us.”
Talk of the South Region being a glorified Kentucky Invitational, served as motivation, freshman guard Cartier Diarra said. Kansas State plans to compete.
When asked about Kentucky being favored so heavily, Kansas State Coach Bruce Weber said, “They’re very good. But they’re going to have to earn it and win it.”
It was not lost on Kentucky players that it was not so long ago that they were not the darlings of TV analysts, media pundits, gambling sites and Travelocity.
Kentucky as overwhelming favorite? “About a week ago, we were under-whelming,” Gabriel said. “We were the opposite way. Either way, it doesn’t matter what the media perceives.
“No. 1 seeds in our region were overwhelming favorites. Anything can happen.”
Gabriel acknowledged that there’s an advantage in being perceived as an underdog.
“Sometimes being the underdog helps you with your mentality,” he said. “Understanding that you have to go and fight, especially with a young team. But, now, the battle becomes making sure we continue to fight. Don’t feed into being the favorite.”
Calipari pointed out that Buffalo affected the aggrieved underdog persona against Kentucky last weekend.
So what if the four teams in the South Region semifinals have a cumulative seed of 32. That’s far higher than the West (23), Midwest (19) and East (11)?
“Seeds don’t matter,” Calipari said. “It’s who’s playing well. If you’re playing well, you advance. If you’re not playing well, guess what? You don’t advance.”
Hamidou Diallo, the hero of last weekend’s round-of-32 victory over Buffalo, said the Cats know they must play well.
“If people think we have an easy road to the Final Four, I guess they’re not watching these games,” he said of this year’s upset-filled NCAA Tournament.
Unlikely as it might seem, Gabriel said Kentucky can play with a metaphorical chip on its shoulder, too.
“There’s still a chip because if you lose, the season’s over,” he said. “We’re trying to win the national championship here. It’s not over just because you’re the favorite. It’s no time to get complacent.”
Kentucky vs. Kansas State
What: NCAA Tournament South Regional semifinal
Where: Philips Arena in Atlanta
When: About 9:37 p.m. (UK is the second game of a doubleheader in Atlanta. Loyola Chicago plays Nevada in the opener at 7:07 p.m.)
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: No. 5 seed Kentucky 26-10; No. 9 seed Kansas State 24-11
Series: Kentucky leads 9-0
Last meeting: Kentucky won 56-49 on March 21, 2014, in the NCAA Tournament round of 64 at St. Louis.