ATLANTA — John Calipari is having a ball coaching Kentucky.
Well, except for movie night.
Calipari has avoided watching other games during the NCAA tournament, and he wants his players to do the same. His message: Focus on us and don’t worry about everyone else.
To drive that point home, the top-seeded Wildcats usually head to the movies when they’re on the road, so they’re not tempted to flip on hoops at the hotel. After arriving in Atlanta, they went to see “21 Jump Street.”
Calipari was not impressed.
“The movie was awful,” he said. “But it did get us out.”
Other than a debatable choice in flicks, Coach Cal’s tunnel-vision approach is working just fine. Kentucky is one win from a return trip to the Final Four, facing Baylor (30-7) in the South Regional final on Sunday.
“We’re a good basketball team,” Calipari said on the eve of the game. “Let’s just play basketball. I don’t care what else is going on in the tournament. I’m not watching any other games. Why do I care?”
Clearly, he’s not one of those poor-mouthing coaches, making an opponent sound like the Miami Heat while pointing out every little weakness of his own team. Calipari is fully aware that he’s got at least a half-dozen players on his roster who are likely to wind up in the NBA, a team that could go down as one of the greatest in college basketball history if it wins three more games.
Even The Onion, a mock news service, weighed in with a faux story on Kentucky’s seemingly unstoppable march to its eighth national championship. The headline: “Kentucky Going To Stick With Strategy Of Having Far-And-Away Better Athletes At Every Position.”
Yuk it up, everyone. Calipari doesn’t mind a bit.
He’s enjoying the ride, and he wants his players to do the same.
“We’re very confident,” freshman point guard Marquis Teague said. “We have a lot of talent on this team, so we feel like if we come out and compete at a high level and defend, it will be tough for teams to beat us.”
Baylor, the No. 3 seed, is a clear underdog but hardly some overmatched Cinderella.
Bouncing back from one of the most shocking scandals in NCAA history, the neon-clad Bears have pushed their way into the regional finals for the second time in three years. They have a couple of players who are likely first-round picks and certainly believe they have the talent, skill and work ethic to compete with the mighty Wildcats.
“We just want to show the world what we can do,” senior forward Quincy Acy said.
None of the players were around in 2003 when stunning revelations nearly brought down the Baylor men’s program. It all started when a player was murdered by one of his teammates. Soon after, there were allegations of drug use and illicit payments and a widespread cover-up. When all the dirty laundry was aired, the NCAA came about as close to imposing the death penalty as it could: a lengthy probation and heavy sanctions, which included a shortened season without any non-conference games.
The Bears didn’t have another winning record until 2008, but this program has been on the rise ever since. The scandal? That’s ancient history.
“I’ve asked a lot of questions about it,” Acy said. “We all know something happened, but we try to block it out of our minds and not let it affect us.”
Baylor has been quite the fashion rage during the NCAAs in its specially designed day-glow uniforms, a color officially dubbed “electricity” that actually makes the players look like a bunch of highlighter pens. But, as the lower-seeded team for the first time in the tournament, the NCAA nixed the idea of letting the Bears stay in blinding green against Kentucky’s traditional home white attire, ruling there wouldn’t be enough contrast (highly debatable).
So, the underdogs will go with new road uniforms: black with neon trim, finished off with black sneakers and neon laces.
“It doesn’t really matter to me,” Acy said. “As long as it has Baylor across the front, I’m down for it.”
Kentucky (35-2) has three straight double-digit wins in the tournament, including a 102-90 shootout with Indiana in the regional semifinals. It was a stunning display against a team that beat the Wildcats back in early December.
Even with freshman star Anthony Davis limited by early foul trouble and scoring just nine points, Kentucky had five players in double figures — led by another freshman, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, with 24 — and iced the victory with a dazzling 35-of-37 performance at the foul line. But Calipari was most impressed by what he saw in the turnover column.
In a game played at breakneck speed, the Wildcats coughed it up only six times.
“I’ve got a good team,” Calipari said. “We don’t need to worry about anything except us. Now, if that’s not good enough, if someone is able to (beat) us, we had a great season. But let’s just play basketball. That’s what we do best.”
Baylor can run and gun with the best of ‘em, but the Bears might want to slow things down a bit with their stifling zone defense. While they have no one who can necessarily match up one-on-one with Davis, they do have an imposing front line with the 235-pound Acy, 6-foot-11 sophomore Perry Jones III and 6-10 freshman Quincy Miller.
Acy had 20 points, 15 rebounds and four dunks in the other regional semifinal, a 75-70 win over Xavier, including a fearsome slam that went straight to YouTube.
It will be much tougher to put up those kind of numbers on Davis, a top candidate for player of the year and the nation’s leading shot blocker with 169. Even playing only 25 minutes against the Hoosiers, the 6-10 center who plays much bigger because of his enormous wingspan had three blocks and altered plenty of other shots.
“We’ve gone against great shot-blockers before,” Acy said. “Obviously, he’s the best in the NCAA, but we can’t shy away from him. We have to attack.”
Calipari wants his superb team to just keep having fun, even if it means another movie night in New Orleans, site of the Final Four.
Maybe he can give “21 Jump Street” another chance. His players, after all, gave it a thumbs-up.
“I thought it was a great movie,” Davis said. “It was very funny.”
“I don’t think he likes movies,” Davis said with a smile. “He just likes those old Westerns.”
Kentucky vs. Baylor
Record 35-2 30-7
Avg. Pts. 77.8 74.8
Opp. Avg. Pts. 60.4 64.9
Margin 17.4 9.9
FG Pct. .487 .470
Opp. FG Pct. .375 .415
3-Pt. FG Pct. .377 .385
Opp. 3-Pt. FG Pct. .315 .333
3-Pt. FG-Game 5.8 6.9
Opp. 3-Pt. FG-Game 5.6 6.2
FT Pct. .729 .751
Rebound Margin 7.3 5.5
TO Diff. 0.4 0.4
Avg Steals 6.0 7.6
Avg Blocks 8.6 4.7