UK Men's Basketball

‘Feel good going in.’ Cats, Calipari upbeat and eager to begin NCAA Tournament.

No Louisville. No problem.

That summed up Kentucky’s reaction to learning Sunday that its path to the Final Four will not include playing in the South Regional semifinals and finals in Louisville.

John Calipari, whose criticism of the NCAA Tournament seeding and bracketing is an annual rite of spring (and summer and fall and winter), made light of Kentucky’s position: A No. 2 seed in the Midwest Region beginning in Jacksonville, Fla., with the intention of advancing to Kansas City, Mo.

“It’s fine,” Calipari told reporters at his Lexington home after the bracket was announced. “I mean, I thought there’d be a chance to play in Louisville. But I thought it wasn’t slim. It was none.”

Reporters numbering about 20 on Calipari’s backyard patio laughed.

Reid Travis shrugged off not having the opportunity to play in Louisville in a South Region that has Virginia, Tennessee, Purdue and Kansas State as the top four seeds.

“That’s out of our hands . . . ,” he said with a chuckle. “I know our fans are going to travel wherever we’re going to be at. I’m excited to see how many people make it out to Thursday.”

Kentucky opens NCAA Tournament play against 15-seed Abilene Christian on Thursday.

The UK coach speculated on the reaction had Kentucky been, say, the No. 2 seed in the South Region. “Would have been, like, ‘Wow. They got (pause) not happening.’

“But that’s fine.”

Abilene Christian guard Jaylen Franklin, left, yelled as guard Paul Hiepler (33) kissed the championship trophy after the Wildcats beat New Orleans to claim the Southland Conference Tournament championship and an automatic bid to the NCAA tourney. Kentucky and Abilene Christian have never played each other before.. Michael Wyke AP

When asked how he would feel in a hypothetical situation as, say, a No. 1 seed bracketed to play second-seeded North Carolina in Charlotte, Calipari had a ready answer. In 2007, his Memphis team was a two-seed playing three-seed Texas A&M in San Antonio. The following year Memphis was a one-seed in the South Region playing two-seed Texas in Houston.

“So it happens,” Calipari said before adding, “against me.”

When a reporter noted that if both teams advance this year, two-seed Kentucky would play four-seed Kansas in Kansas City in the Midwest Region finals on March 31.

“Really?” Calipari said. “I really haven’t looked.”

Turning a blind eye to possible future opponents hasn’t always been the case for Calipari. In the past, he’s suggested the NCAA Selection Committee stacked the deck by placing Kentucky in a region loaded with quality opponents. But this year, Calipari said he has been cautioning his players against even watching other NCAA Tournament games.

“You don’t watch anything but what you’ve got at hand,” he said. “You’ve got to have that free mind. Any anxiety about watching games is stupid.”

It might be tempting to look ahead with a second-round opponent being either Wofford, which is hyped as a mid-major dark horse pick, or Seton Hall, which beat Kentucky in early December.

Calipari spoke of Travis’ return from a sprained right knee to play in the Southeastern Conference as a good sign.

“Oh, yeah,” Calipari said. “It would have been hard without him playing in a game. That was my worry. He played good in both games (in Nashville).”

Travis played 23 minutes against Alabama on Friday and 28 minutes against Tennessee on Saturday. He said his knee held up well.

“I feel really good,” he said. “Knee is just fine. I didn’t really have any soreness or anything like that. So all signs are positive.”

Even with Saturday’s loss to Tennessee in the SEC Tournament semifinals, Calipari expressed satisfaction with how UK looks going into the NCAA Tournament.

UK out-rebounded Tennessee 32-29, shot better (53.6 percent to 46.4 percent), had a positive assist-to-turnover ratio (17-to-11) and doubled up the Vols in points in the paint 44-22.

“How did we lose that?” Calipari said. The UK coach answered his own question. “Couple things happen out of your control,” he said in a seeming reference to the officiating. “Couple things happen in our control (late turnovers, failure to secure rebounds). Then all of a sudden, you drop a game. What a great lesson.

“I feel good going in. Let’s play the game. Not even mad we play Thursday (in the first round) because we didn’t play this afternoon.”

Travis saw the Tennessee game as good preparation for the NCAA Tournament. It was a similar high-intensity competition that had the winner advance and loser go home.

“That’s something we’re going to see in the next couple weeks in big-time games,” he said. “For us, it was a good learning experience. I felt we got better from it, so it definitely helped us prepare.”

Kentucky’s tournament opener

No. 2 seed Kentucky vs. No. 15 seed Abilene Christian

What: NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional

When: 7:10 p.m. Thursday

Where: Jacksonville, Fla.

TV: CBS-27

Records: Kentucky 27-6, Abilene Christian 27-6

About Abilene Christian

Location: Abilene, Texas

Enrollment: 3,670

Nickname: Wildcats

School colors: White and Purple

Head coach: Joe Golding (114-127 in eight seasons at Abilene Christian and overall)

Conference: Southland

NCAA berth: Automatic (Abilene Christian defeated New Orleans 77-60 in the Southland Conference Tournament championship game. The Wildcats finished second in the conference in the regular season.)

All-time series: First meeting with Kentucky

Common opponents with Kentucky this season: None

Other notable games this season: The only top 25 teams Abilene Christian played this season was Texas Tech on Dec. 15 in Lubbock, Texas. Texas Tech won 82-48

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