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Kentucky’s John Calipari, Derek Willis, Bam Adebayo, Isaiah Briscoe, Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox talk about not being freshman, three SEC teams still playing and having fun.
Matt Stone, the CJ

MEMPHIS, Tenn. – For this Kentucky team to reach peak performance, this is how it had to be.

Wichita State, a 10-seed snub by the selection committee, in the Round of 32? Bring it on. UCLA, a trendy pick to win it all as the champion in 8.64 percent of submitted brackets on, in the Sweet 16? Light work. And now North Carolina on Sunday at 5:05 p.m. in the Elite Eight? If Kentucky makes it to next week’s Final Four in Phoenix, it will have already won two or three Final Four caliber games on the way there.

“A lot of people might see it as a burden, but I think it’s only made us even better playing against these top teams,” Wildcats freshman forward Wenyen Gabriel said. “It just gets you ready for the next game.”

For these Wildcats, when the game is played is not as important as who they’re going against and what’s at stake. The stage and spotlight, growing bigger and brighter by the round, has yet to overwhelm the youngest team remaining in the tournament. For the team briefly ranked No. 1 in the country this season and the program with eight national championships, most of any left in the field, coach John Calipari and his players have figured out a why to paint themselves into a corner and punch up in statement games that carry more meaning than the final score.

Wichita State was supposed to be tougher and more together. Kentucky was “nothing special” according to Shockers forward Darral Willis Jr.

Good one, Darral.

UCLA was supposed to be faster and impossible to contain. LaVar Ball, father of Lonzo and embarrassment to self, said Kentucky couldn’t keep up.

Who is LaVar Ball, again?

North Carolina played in the national championship game last season and is comprised of seniors and juniors. There were no motivation-inducing sound bytes from any of those winners during interviews at FedExForum Saturday. So Calipari began work to put that underdog chip in his team’s mindset.

“I remember watching them play and I’m thinking please don’t put them in our bracket, and there they are in our bracket,” Calipari said. “Probably someone heard me think that, and said, ‘Oh, that’s what he doesn’t want. They’re going in that bracket.'”

Don’t let Calipari fool you. A couple of moments later, he said what we already know: Kentucky needs the highest stakes possible to become the best version of itself.

“It probably helps both of us in preparation,” Calipari said.

How can Kentucky, the winningest program in college basketball history, manufacture the worn out “nobody but us believes in us” mentality that seems to pay off in the postseason? It comes from Calipari, always the outsider and always comfortable being uncomfortable.

“I think probably throughout my career, I’ve been disruptive,” he said. “Like every once in a while, I speak my mind and walk into different leagues and jobs and have to build and go and have to disrupt.”

That Calipari is in Memphis, where he built the local Tigers into a college basketball power before taking his act of disruption to Kentucky, is fitting. The hate for Calipari here, fading as it may be, has an edge found nowhere else. And yet, he’s winning again, despite the boos and fans on the street giving television reporters funny clips to air.

“We’ve got coach’s back, and he has our back,” Kentucky sophomore guard Isaiah Briscoe said.

Maybe you don’t like the one-and-done system that Calipari envisioned and brought to life. “Players first” is painted above the door to the practice court at the basketball facility in Lexington. Conventional thinking used to be, what was good for the program was good for the player.

Calipari isn’t conventional. And now North Carolina’s Roy Williams, although the perception might be otherwise, isn’t either. Nowadays, Duke has one-and-done players every year. Washington has sent multiple freshmen to the league. LSU, Arizona, Michigan State, UCLA, Syracuse, N.C. State – many programs have shifted and brought in players for only one season.

North Carolina hasn’t done it since Brandan Wright left after his freshman season in 2007. Is there a difference in the Carolina Way and the Kentucky mentality?

“There’s a difference, (Calipari) got them and I didn’t,” Williams said. “I recruit the same guys. I recruited Bam (Adebayo) for a long time. I just thought he was great. I went in to see Malik (Monk). De’Aaron (Fox), we tried to recruit him early but didn’t think we were getting there.

“What John does is just phenomenal to me. To have to change four, five, six, seven guys every year is just phenomenal. What he does is really special there, and I’m not trying to suck up or anything. I really believe that.”

What Calipari does is get his players to sacrifice points or minutes and play unselfishly on offense and relentlessly on defense. With a win Sunday, Kentucky will play in its fifth Final Four in eight seasons under Calipari.

And somehow, Kentucky stays in a state of “we’ll-show-you” constantly.

“I’ll say it again, we don’t know what to expect,” Calipari said. “I just want these kids to go out there and have a ball, but we’re the youngest team. Out of 68 teams in this thing, we were the youngest team. One of the veteran teams is North Carolina, and they are outstanding. I mean, I watched it. I watched tape from last night and through this morning, and ooh, they’re good.”

Sounds like another statement for Kentucky to make.

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