John Clay

Hey Catlanta, here come the rising and surprising Kentucky Wildcats

Kentucky players looking forward to Sweet 16 in Catlanta

After win over Buffalo, Kentucky players talk about getting to South Regional semifinal Thursday night in Atlanta.
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After win over Buffalo, Kentucky players talk about getting to South Regional semifinal Thursday night in Atlanta.

The long, winding and now surprising road that has been this 2017-18 basketball season has landed Kentucky in a familiar and favorite spot.

Hey Catlanta, the Cats are coming back.

And they don’t want to stop there.

Paced by the creative maneuvering of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (27 points) and the outrageous athleticism of Hamidou Diallo (22 points, eight rebounds), No. 5 seed Kentucky made short order of NCAA Tournament Cinderella and No. 13 seed Buffalo on Saturday in Taco Bell Arena, bursting the Bulls’ bubble 95-75.

The victory earned John Calipari’s young Cats (26-10) a spot in Thursday’s Sweet 16 regional semifinal game in Philips Arena in Atlanta, historically known as Catlanta for its broad Big Blue support during March.

“They’ve told us about it,” freshman forward Kevin Knox said. “They told us there would be like a 100,000 people there in blue, like it’s going to be a home game.”

Indeed, the Georgia capitol has traditionally been kind to the Cats — think back to 2012 when Anthony Davis and Company defeated Indiana and Baylor on the way to the national title. And yet there are a couple of surprises in this particular trip, both that the Cats have made it there and who they will find once they arrive.

A South Region road considered dark and dangerous for a shaky Kentucky squad abruptly and surprisingly opened up to blue skies on Thursday and Friday. First, No. 13 seed Buffalo emphatically took down No. 4 seed and Pac-12 champion Arizona 89-68. Then little-known UMBC made history, becoming the first No. 16 seed to defeat a No. 1 seed by dropping a 74-54 bombshell on overall top seed Virginia.

Kentucky put an end to any upset talk on its watch Saturday, getting 27 points and a near-perfect shooting game from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in a 95-75 victory over 13th-seeded Buffalo.

“Yeah,” said UK forward PJ Washington when asked if the team was paying attention to what was going on in the top half of its regional bracket. “We knew.”

Knowing the window of opportunity exists and climbing through it are two different matters, however. And UK new that if a cocky, confident Buffalo, led by brash coach Nate Oats, who called Caliapri a “whiner” for complaining about playing so many freshmen, could take down star-studded Arizona, surely the Bulls were capable of upsetting Kentucky, as well.

“If I was them,” said Calipari on Friday, “I’d be confident, too.”

Saturday wasn’t Thursday, however. If Arizona treats defense as a hobby, Kentucky continued stringing barbed wire. Buffalo made a sizzling 15 of 30 three-pointers in taking down Arizona. Against UK’s never-ending length, however, the Bulls were just seven of 31 from beyond the arc, including 2-for-14 in the second half.

Meanwhile, on offense, Shai was Shai. Gilgeous-Alexander controlled the tempo, found avenues to the rim and scored baskets just when Buffalo believed it might actually be climbing back into the game.

Kentucky guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said the team knew Buffalo players had said they could disrupt Kentucky.

“He’s the best point guard we’ve seen all year,” said Oats, who said he apologized to Calipari before the game for the “whiner” remark. “We really didn’t have an answer for them.”

And Sweet 16 would probably not have been the answer to where your typical Kentucky basketball fan thought this team was headed a month ago when their beloved were 17-9 overall, 6-7 in the league and in the throes of a four-game losing streak.

Without so much as a “tweak,” the Cats have won nine of 10 since, sweeping first the SEC Tournament and then the Boise regional.

“There was something about this team that we always knew that we could go far in this tournament,” Knox said.

“We feel like we’re playing our best basketball right now,” Washington said.

Not that making it out of the first weekend is the end game. And Thursday’s matchup against either No. 9 seed Kansas State No. 16 seed UMBC is a guaranteed ticket to Saturday’s Elite Eight, one win from the Final Four in San Antonio.

“The team that beat Virginia, they’re a great team,” Diallo said. “If they could beat Virginia, they could beat us. We’ve just got to stay focused and stay motivated. We’re in March and that’s when crazy things happen.”

Crazy enough for this Kentucky team to end up in a Sweet 16 game in Catlanta.

Said a smiling PJ Washington, “I can’t wait.”

Buffalo Bulls head coach Nate Oats said his team set out to make Kentucky shoot three-pointers. Kentucky met the challenge by making seven of 15 attempts in its 95-75 NCAA Tournament win in Boise, Idaho, on Saturday night. Here's everything the Bu

Listen to everything Kentucky Coach John Calipari had to say after the Wildcats defeated Buffalo 95-75 in the NCAA Tournament on Saturday night in Boise, Idaho. The video also includes comments from UK players Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Hamidou Dial

Kentucky guard Hamidou Diallo talks about his 22-point, eight-rebound performance in UK’s 95-75 win over Buffalo in the NCAA Tournament on Saturday.

After win over Buffalo, Kentucky players talk about getting to South Regional semifinal Thursday night in Atlanta.

Kentucky men’s basketball 2017-18

Date

Opponent

UK

Opp

Dec

Rec

SEC

11/10/17

Utah Valley

73

63

W

1-0

 

11/12/17

Vermont

73

69

W

2-0

 

11/14/17

vs Kansas (Chicago)

61

65

L

2-1

 

11/17/17

East Tennessee

78

61

W

3-1

 

11/20/17

Troy

70

62

W

4-1

 

11/22/17

Fort Wayne

86

67

W

5-1

 

11/26/17

UIC

107

73

W

6-1

 

12/2/17

Harvard

79

70

W

7-1

 

12/9/17

vsMonmouth (New York)

93

76

W

8-1

 

12/16/17

Virginia Tech

93

86

W

9-1

 

12/23/17

vsUCLA (New Orleans)

75

83

L

9-2

 

12/29/17

Louisville

90

61

W

10-2

 

12/31/17

Georgia

66

61

W

11-2

1-0

1/3/18

@LSU

74

71

W

12-2

2-0

1/6/18

@Tennessee

65

76

L

12-3

2-1

1/9/18

Texas A&M

74

73

W

13-3

3-1

1/13/18

@Vanderbilt

74

67

W

14-3

4-1

1/16/18

@S Carolina

68

76

L

14-4

4-2

1/20/18

Florida

64

66

L

14-5

4-3

1/23/18

Mississippi St

78

65

W

15-5

5-3

1/27/18

@West Virginia

83

76

W

16-5

 

1/30/18

Vanderbilt

83

81

W(OT)

17-5

6-3

2/3/18

@Missouri

60

69

L

17-6

6-4

2/6/18

Tennessee

59

61

L

17-7

6-5

2/10/18

@Texas A&M

74

85

L

17-8

6-6

2/14/18

@Auburn

66

76

L

17-9

6-7

2/17/18

Alabama

81

71

W

18-9

7-7

2/20/18

@Arkansas

87

72

W

19-9

8-7

2/24/18

Missouri

87

66

W

20-9

9-7

2/28/18

Ole Miss

96

78

W

21-9

10-7

3/3/18

@Florida

67

80

L

21-10

10-8

3/9/18

vsGeorgia (SEC)

62

49

W

22-10

 

3/10/18

vsAlabama (SEC)

86

63

W

23-10

 

3/11/18

vsTennessee (SEC)

77

72

W

24-10

 

3/15/18

vsDavidson (NCAA)

78

73

W

25-10

 

3/17/18

vsBuffalo (NCAA)

95

75

W

26-10

 
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