John Calipari scores much-needed win as Kentucky ends 4-year NCAA tournament drought

Two nights before Kentucky’s first round of the NCAA Men’s Tournament against Providence, John Calipari left emboldened by his team’s behavior.

There was more talk and laughter than Calipari had heard in a while as the Wildcats dined together. No one had headphones in their ears. No one was doing their own thing on the side.

“I slept better last night because of it,” Calipari said on Thursday.

Those relaxed vibes continued into Friday night as Kentucky looked loose during what should have been a pressure-packed basketball game. The sixth Wildcats defeated 11th-ranked Providence 61-53, finally ending a 1,449-day drought without an NCAA Tournament win.

One Kentucky hero was Oscar Tshiebwe, the 2022 National Player of the Year who experienced some ups and downs during his double season. Tshiebwe was dominant on the glass, outscoring Providence by an astonishing 25 rebounds, including 11 of Kentucky’s 18 offensive rebounds.

The Wildcats’ other hero was Antonio Reeves, the Illinois State transfer who became Kentucky’s most reliable perimeter shooter this season. Reeves scored 22 points and made five 3-pointers, including two huge ones during a quick late-half rush that helped the Wildcats pull up an 11-point lead.

Providence kept at striking distance, but the Friars never got closer than four. Tshiebwe properly filled in that mini-run, scoring on a hit and then securing another offensive rebound and setting up Chris Livingston.

Kentucky head coach John Calipari finally got another NCAA Tournament victory, but he will likely need more to keep his job secure. (Grant Halverson/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

Kentucky’s victory is a first step in relieving some of the pressure on John Calipari. The Wildcats need a March run to wash away the bitter taste of the last two years’ failures.

Two years ago, Kentucky staggered through its worst season in nearly a century, moving from the preseason top 10 to a 9-16 record. Last year, the Wildcats suffered their worst NCAA tournament loss in program history, squandering a 26-win season with a spectacular flop against little-regarded Saint Peter’s.

One of Kentucky’s top five preseason teams was supposed to rack up wins and restore order this season, but the Wildcats didn’t immediately settle down. Despite the presence of the current National Player of the Year, a pair of Rivals top-15 freshmen and a handful of talented seniors, Kentucky did not defeat an NCAA Tournament opponent until a mid-January victory over Tennessee.

When Alabama demolished Kentucky by 26 points in early January, the Crimson Tide’s student section gleefully taunted Calipari with chants of “Cal to Texas.” Three nights later, Calipari suffered an even worse indignity when a Kentucky fan was escorted from Rupp Arena after refusing to relinquish a sign that read, “Please go to Texas.”

The Texas talk died down soon after, as Calipari continued tinkering with his lineup combinations and Kentucky began to string together some wins. The Wildcats won 11 of 15 games before an SEC Tournament Quarterfinal loss to Vanderbilt, serving as one of the top 20 teams nationally during that two-month period.

Despite that run, Kentucky remains under the radar in March, a rarity for a program that soaks up more of the spotlight than any other in college basketball. No one is promoting the Wildcats as an underdog title contender. Nearly 64% of Yahoo users were Kansas State’s No. 3 seed, knocking out Kentucky in the Round of 16.

“I told the guys I like it,” Calipari said on Wednesday. “This is like my UMass and Memphis days. ‘Oh, they didn’t play… they didn’t… they didn’t… they didn’t…’ That’s fine. We’ll see where we are. We’ll see. But I am liking this group.”

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