ATLANTA -- Maybe he had grown tired of finding new ways to answer the same questions. Or maybe John Calipari was a little loopy because it was past 1 a.m. and he had just endured one of his most stressful victories this season. Whatever the reason, the Kentucky coach opened a window into his mind. He dropped the coachspeak and talked frankly about what it's like to coach the most talented team in the NCAA Tournament.
"Everybody is like, 'This must be a hard team to coach.' Folks, it isn't," Calipari said after Kentucky's 102-90 win against Indiana sent the Wildcats to the Elite Eight to face Baylor. "You know what's hard? When your players are bad. That's really hard. This is not hard. They're smart. They like each other. They respect coaching. They respect authority."
They also notch double-digit wins against talented, hot-shooting opponents who manage to accomplish the one thing that was supposed to bring down the Wildcats. For the second time this season, Indiana got Kentucky center Anthony Davis in foul trouble. Friday, the Hoosiers goaded Davis into his second foul even faster than they did in their buzzer-beater win against the Wildcats in Bloomington on Dec. 10. Davis, who astoundingly hadn't been in foul trouble since that game, picked up his second foul with 14:05 remaining in the first half.
Calipari glued the national player of the year's butt to the bench, and Davis didn't take the court again until the second half. Yet Kentucky still led by three because Terrence Jones scored all 12 of his points in the half and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist scored 11 of his team-high 24.
The loss of Davis didn't sting so much because Indiana center Cody Zeller got whistled for two fouls in four seconds less than a minute after Davis hit the pine. Indiana coach Tom Crean rolled the dice and played Zeller more in the half, but that didn't even buy the Hoosiers a halftime lead.
When Davis returned in the second half, he didn't play scared. He also didn't hold back to keep the whistles at bay. With the game still fairly tight midway through the second half, Davis swatted Zeller's reverse attempt for one of his three blocks. Davis never did pick up that third foul. "By the second half, my teammates told me, 'You're fine. Just come out and play your game. We need you to steal, block shots, rebound, and score the ball,'" Davis said. "So that's what I did in the second half."
Meanwhile, Kentucky made 35 of 37 free throws, including a run of 16 in a row in the final 4:49. The Wildcats were a fairly good free throw shooting team this season -- 79th in the nation at 71.9 percent -- but a Calipari team at the line in the NCAA Tournament will always be compared to the 2008 Memphis squad, which lost out on the national title when the Tigers missed four consecutive free throws in the final minute. (Obviously, that has nothing to do with this year's Kentucky team, but it is a frequently cited criticism of Calipari's coaching acumen.)
Afterward, Crean could only marvel at a collection of all-stars hitting its stride at the ideal moment. "We scored 90 points," Crean said. "We scored 90 points." And the Hoosiers still lost.
The win even amazed Calipari. "If you told me the team we're playing today, Indiana, was going to score 90 points and shoot 52 percent from the floor, I was going to have to tell you, 'Wow, it's been a nice season. Hate to end it that way, but it's been a nice season,'" Calipari said. "And we won."
So what now? The Wildcats are a win away from a consecutive Final Four, but that won't be good enough. This group is so much better than the field that anything short of a national title will be viewed inside and outside the Bluegrass State as an utter failure. Calipari now must fight that expectation. "It seems like there's only one team that is not allowed to lose in this tournament, and that's us," Calipari said. "I don't want them to feel that. That's not the case. What I want them to do is go have a ball playing."
Calipari's solutions? When talking to the team, don't build the tournament into the be-all and end-all. Present it to the players simply as a series of games. "We're playing basketball games," Calipari said. "We're not worried about a tournament. ... We took them to the movies [Thursday] night because I didn't want them to watch all the games. So they went and watched 21 Jump Street. Which I had to sit through, by the way."
The Wildcats watched far more of 21 Jump Street star Jonah Hill than they did of Indiana forward Christian Watford. Calipari said he breaks down an opponent's film and gives his players about a four- to five-minute clip to review. That, he said, is the scouting report. "That's it," Calipari said. "I want them worried about us. Let's just have fun playing basketball. We'll tell you what you've got to do and how you're going to have to play and what this other team is going to do to you. You don't worry about it. You worry about us."
He's correct. There is no team left in the tournament that can beat Kentucky except Kentucky. That's still possible, because, after all, this is still a young team in a pressure-packed situation. But if the Wildcats worry about themselves and play to their capability, they can keep making it appear as if their coach has as easy a job as he claims.