It starts with a pod.
It can end with one shining moment.
For No. 2 seed Kentucky (26-7), life on the pod will be short if it shoots as it did in a 69-62 loss to Tennessee in the SEC Tournament semifinals last week. The Wildcats were 2-of-20 from 3-point range and subsequently grew frustrated and stopped playing defense for what was just their third loss in 14 games.
Kentucky plays No. 15 seed Saint Peter’s (19-11) in the first round of the East Region of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday (7:10 p.m. eastern, CBS) at 20,000-seat Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
The winner plays on Saturday against the winner of No. 7 seed Murray State (30-2) and No. 10 seed San Francisco (24-9), which play in the next door pod Thursday (9:40 p.m., CBS).
“I’m trying to keep ’em focused on the little pod,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “You don’t even need to worry about San Francisco or Murray, because we don’t know who’s winning that game, and that’s how this goes. You’re playing in a pod for a weekend. That’s all you’re worrying about. Nothing else.”
That and making their shots.
“We had guys, they were barely hitting the rim,” Calipari said of the Tennessee game. “Let’s just put it that way. They weren’t straight. They were rifling off.”
And Calipari blamed himself for not having his players go through a shoot-around before the game. You can bet Kentucky will have one of those at Gainbridge.
“I learned my lesson,” he said. “We had guys that missed shots. And then you know what happened on defense? They broke down. They stopped playing. You can’t play like that in the tournament. I’m happy we got it out of our way.”
Guard Kellan Grady was 0-for-5 from 3-point range and 1-for-8 from the field for two points – nine below his average.
“We’ve got to understand that we need to respond in a positive way when adversity hits,” he said. “Stay together. Stay mellow. And stay connected, and be ready for the moment. We have the luxury to have time to reset.”
To help erase the 2-for-20 from his players’ minds, Calipari had his staff make film cuts of each player making shot after shot during the season.
“They’ll watch a two-hour film of that in one sitting because it’s of them,” Calipari said. “You’ve got to have a little swagger going into this thing. You know, having that Kentucky uniform on, you know, ‘OK, let’s go.’ But the swagger is what’s in the uniform.”
The Kentucky uniform, though, has not been in a NCAA Tournament since 2019 when the Wildcats reached the Elite Eight. Kentucky had its worst season since 1988-89 in 2020-21, finishing 9-16 and 8-9. There was no NCAA Tournament in 2019-20 because of COVID-19.
“These guys haven’t played in an NCAA Tournament,” said Calipari, who is in his 10th with Kentucky since getting the job in 2009. He has reached four Final Fours with the Wildcats and won the national championship in 2012 with a runner-up finish in 2014.
“I want guys to be stars at their role,” he said. “Stars at what they’ve got to do for the team. We got fight now. That’s part of it. What do you have to do to help our team win? What do you star in? It’s got to be what this team needs you to do.”
SEC SCHEDULE IN NCAA TOURNAMENT (All times eastern):
No. 3 seed Tennessee (26-7) vs. No. 14 Longwood (26-6), Indianapolis, Indiana, 2:45 p.m., CBS
No. 2 Kentucky (26-7) vs. No. 15 Saint Peter’s (19-11), Indianapolis, 7:10 p.m., CBS
No. 4 Arkansas (25-8) vs. No. 13 Vermont (28-5), Buffalo, N.Y., 9:20 p.m., TNT
No. 2 Auburn (27-5) vs. No. 15 Jacksonville State (21-10), Greenville, S.C., 12:40 p.m., TruTV
No. 6 Alabama (19-13) vs. Rutgers/Notre Dame winner*, San Diego, California, 4:15 p.m., TNT
*(Rutgers, 18-13, vs. Notre Dame, 22-10, Dayton, Ohio, 9:10 p.m. Wednesday, TruTV)
No. 6 LSU (22-11) vs. No. 11 Iowa State (20-12), Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 7:20 p.m., TBS
SEC SCHEDULE IN NIT
No. 4 seed Vanderbilt 82, Belmont 71
No. 1 seed Texas A&M 74, Alcorn State 62
No. 3 Mississippi State (18-15) at Virginia (19-13), 7 p.m., ESPN2
Iona (25-7) at No. 3 Florida (19-13), 9 p.m., ESPN2