John Clay

How will Kentucky’s young guns react to playing in their first NCAA Tournament?

Kentucky forwards Sacha Killeya-Jones, left, and PJ Washington defended Tennessee guard Lamonte Turner, center, during the Cats’ 77-72 win in the SEC Tournament finals on March 11 in the Scottrade Center in St. Louis.
Kentucky forwards Sacha Killeya-Jones, left, and PJ Washington defended Tennessee guard Lamonte Turner, center, during the Cats’ 77-72 win in the SEC Tournament finals on March 11 in the Scottrade Center in St. Louis. aslitz@herald-leader.com

You don’t know. I don’t know. I doubt even John Calipari knows for sure.

How will Kentucky’s young basketball players react to playing in their first NCAA Tournament?

After all, Thursday’s first-round game against Atlantic 10 Tournament champion Davidson in Boise, Idaho, is the latest in a line of firsts for a team that plays seven freshmen and two sophomores.

They have often reacted well to new situations. Other times, not so much.

Kentucky has made the tournament 56 times, the most in NCAA history. But that's not where its superiority in the tournament record books stops.

Flip the calender back to November and the Champions Classic in the United Center in Chicago. It was Kentucky’s third game of the season and its first major test. The Cats were matched up against the Kansas Jayhawks, fourth in the AP preseason poll.

John Calipari’s young guns lost that night, 65-61, but they certainly gave a good account of themselves. The stage wasn’t too big. The fight was there. In fact, with 1:41 to go in the game, Kentucky led 57-55.

One month later, however, the result in a similar situation was not as encouraging. Traveling to New Orleans to play UCLA two days before Christmas in the CBS Sports Classic, the Cats came up short, 83-75, to the Bruins, a team they should have beaten.

Six days later, they entered into their first real rivalry game, facing the Louisville Cardinals in Rupp Arena. The Cats aced that test, smashing U of L 90-61 in their most impressive overall performance of the season.

Then came the first two true road tests. UK defeated LSU 74-71 in Baton Rouge, but its first road challenge against a good team, at Tennessee, did not turn out so well. Up 37-29 at halftime, the Cats collapsed and lost 76-65 to what turned out to be a very good Tennessee team.

A month later, UK encountered its first extended losing streak, not just of the season but in Calipari’s time at Kentucky. Four straight games the Cats dropped, the last a 76-66 road setback at SEC-leader Auburn that dropped UK to 6-7 in the league and produced grumbles that this might be an NIT team.

How did the Cats react to their first period of prolonged criticism? They ripped off four straight wins, defeating Alabama, Arkansas (in Fayetteville), Missouri and Ole Miss to right the ship.

They finished the regular season with a thud, however, falling 80-67 at Florida, their first trip to Gainesville, always a tough place to play, and their first experience being the opponent for a home team’s Senior Day festivities.

Last weekend, UK’s freshmen played in their first SEC Tournament, their first win-or-go-home event. They did so without Jarred Vanderbilt, the freshman forward who had developed into the team’s best rebounder after finally taking the floor Jan. 16 following a preseason ankle injury.

The Cats could not have responded much better, beating Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee to claim the program’s fourth straight conference tournament title. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander earned MVP honors, scoring 29 points in the title game. Wenyen Gabriel went 7-for-7 from three-point range in Saturday’s semifinals.

For Kentucky fans, the most encouraging aspect of the St. Louis sweep was UK’s defense. It held Georgia to 28.3-percent shooting in the quarterfinals; Alabama to 37.9 percent in the semis and Tennessee to 37.1 percent in the finals. And the thing about good defense, it travels.

Does this mean Kentucky’s young stars will respond the same way in Boise? Winning the SEC Tournament surely provided a boost of confidence, but this is the team’s first trip out West. The games will be played in a smaller arena where the crowd might not be as Blue as in past games. It’s against an unfamiliar opponent, one that has won 11 of its last 13 games. And, it’s the NCAA Tournament.

The hole card is Calipari, who in the past has found ways to get his young players to excel on the biggest stage. Think back to 2014 when Julius Randle, James Young and the Harrison twins caught fire at exactly the right time and advanced all the way to the title game.

This might be the first NCAA Tournament for these young players, but it’s far from the first for its coach.

Next game

Kentucky vs. Davidson

What: NCAA Tournament South Region round-of-64 game

When: Thursday, 7:10 p.m. EDT

Where: Boise, Idaho

TV: CBS-27

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