March Madness Surrounds Kentucky As It Faces A Must-Win Tourney Opener Against Providence: Trey Wallace

GREENSBORO, N.C. — Kentucky players filed into the locker room on Thursday before hitting the practice court. Following them was a mass progression of reporters, what seemed like every media member covering this region at the NCAA Tournament.

It's not a surprise that the No. 6-seeded Wildcats are the main attraction, even with higher seeded teams in-town. Just like Duke, the Kentucky blue is a trademark of college basketball, with thousands of Big Blue supporters expected to fill Greensboro Coliseum on Friday night.

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But the road to March Madness turned into a tougher path than some UK fans expected. There was talk radio chatter just two months ago about whether it was time for head coach John Calipari to go. The situation looked bleak at times, with players going down with injuries and the Wildcats losing to South Carolina and Vanderbilt, twice.

An early exit at the SEC Tournament turned into talking points about being able to get healthy for the NCAA Tournament. Calipari can try and spin the situation, but Kentucky fans are smart enough to know it was just talk. The amount of talent Big Blue brings in every season should equate into tournament runs and Sweet 16 appearances, not first game exits like we witnessed in the 2022 NCAA Tournament or the 2023 SEC tourney.

This doesn't include the 2020-2021 season that saw Kentucky sitting at home watching the NCAA tourney unfold. Memories of last season's loss to Saint Peter's still haunt some fans, while the short trip to Nashville last week was a bummer for one Kentucky fan I spoke with, who took his son to Indianapolis last year as well.

"Traveling to Nashville, and last year to Indianapolis certainly didn't turn out to be fun. I know my youngest enjoyed it, but the ride home for me was miserable after those two trips," Jeff from Lexington explained to me. "I guess the only positive out of it all was that I saved a little money on not having to pay for extra nights at the hotel. But seriously, we (fans) expect them to be competing for championships every year. I know those players are trying their hardest, but our last two trips have been pretty short. Heck, maybe I'm the source of bad luck, we'll see tonight."

But as we all witnessed in 2022, Saint Peter's sent the Wildcats packing on the first day of last year's NCAA tourney, to the dismay of over 10,000 Kentucky fans who traveled to Indianapolis. This season is weirdly starting to trend towards an early exit in March if the 'Cats can't get the most out of guys like Oscar Tshiebwe or Cason Wallace. The status of Sahvir Wheeler is up in the air, with early talk of him potentially playing on Friday, but it shouldn't matter.

"The onslaught, they withstood it and stayed together and grew and became a better team," John Calipari noted. "I told them you're going to remember 2023 the rest of your life, and you're going to be able to say we can get through this. Yeah, you should have seen 2023."

The Circus Around Kentucky Basketball Team In Greensboro

It's no secret that Kentucky draws a crowd. Consider the fact that there were over 20 media members in the Kentucky locker room here in Greensboro. That should tell you everything you need to know about the importance of Cats' basketball to the fan base.

What this means for the Wildcats is more eyes on a program that already has the attention of college basketball, win or lose. It means that if No. 11 Providence defeats Kentucky on Friday, there will be an ample amount of folks throwing daggers at John Calipari, myself included. This fan base is scattered from coast to coast, with an international following, certainly helped by some of the foreign born players Calipari has successfully recruited.

But this fan base feels like a powder keg waiting to explode at the coaching staff. If you're being paid over $9 million to coach basketball at Kentucky, you better bring better results than recent history has offered.

The problem is that I don't trust the Wildcats right now, which has been the case far too often in recent years.

Can this team put the past behind them and play like a team destined for a Final Four? I have no idea, I wouldn't put money on it, but it certainly wouldn't shock me. This basketball team has confused me since late November, and I don't expect them to make sense now, either way.

Whatever happens over the next two days will not surprise me. I could be writing the 2022-23 Kentucky obituary, or I could be writing about a team headed to New York City for the Sweet 16.

Nothing has come easy for this Kentucky team during the 2022-2023 season, but they better win on Friday, or it will be another long off-season filled with questions.

Written by
Trey Wallace is the host of The Trey Wallace Podcast that focuses on a mixture of sports, culture, entertainment along with his perspective on everything from College Football to the College World Series. Wallace has been covering college sports for 15 years, starting off while attending the University of South Alabama. He’s broken some of the biggest college stories including the Florida football "Credit Card Scandal" along with the firing of Jim McElwin and Kevin Sumlin. Wallace also broke one of the biggest stories in college football in 2020 around the NCAA investigation into recruiting violations against Tennessee football head coach Jeremy Pruitt. Wallace also appears on radio across seven different states breaking down that latest news in college sports.