NEW ORLEANS (AP)—John Calipari has coached in enough NCAA tournaments to know that youth can be more of a liability at this time of year than any other.
With the talent he has in freshmen such as John Wall, Eric Bledsoe and DeMarcus Cousins, a lack of tournament experience doesn’t have to be an issue. The problem, Calipari said, is that you never know.
“When you have a team this young, you’re in the survive-and-advance mode,” Calipari said Wednesday, the day before his No. 1-seeded Wildcats (32-2) were slated to open tournament play against 16th-seed East Tennessee State (20-14).
“What we’re talking about and the message I’ve given the team: Land the plane,” Calipari said. “There’s storm, there’s lightning, people drinking their “hater-ade” and coming at you. There are going to be things written and said. It’s all coming at you. … We’re not worried about score and who scores and what. Just land the plane and move on.”
ETSU just might be the type of team to create a turbulent first-round ride for the Wildcats, given their recent history. Only one year ago, the Buccaneers gave then No. 1-seed Pittsburgh a scare, trailing 59-57 with a little more than four minutes to go before falling 72-62.
“We’ve got good history in the tournament of playing close games,” ETSU coach Murry Bartow said. “Several years ago we played Cincinnati in the first round. We lost by three. Last year we played Pittsburgh, and that game went right to the wire or at least down to the last three or four minutes.”
So far, a 16th-seeded team has never beaten a top seed. Inexperienced as Wall may be, he’s aware of that statistic, and apparently savvy enough not to let it give him too much confidence.
“It enters your mind. You don’t want to be the first school to lose to a 16 seed,” Wall said. “We’re just going in, listening to everything coach is telling us, preparing for the game, not overlooking no team. You never know what could happen. They could come out and hit a lot of shots and they might get the lead and feel confident.”
Or Kentucky’s fabulous freshmen could come out and hit a lot of shots, as they’ve done all year.
Wall is averaging 16.9 points and 6.4 assists for the season and keeps getting better. In helping Kentucky win the Southeastern Conference tournament, he averaged 18 points, 7.7 assists and 6.3 rebounds.
Cousins has averaged 15.3 points and 10.1 rebounds this season, while Beldsoe has averaged 10.8 points and scored 18 in the SEC tournament championship.
“Certainly as people critique Kentucky’s team, that’s one thing they’d say — they have three freshmen that have never been in the tournament,” Bartow said. “The problem is those three freshmen are so talented—and future pros. And John Wall is the best player in the country, so I don’t know how much effect it will have in this game.”
ETSU doesn’t have any freshman starters, but rather one senior, three juniors and a sophomore.
Junior forward Tommy Hubbard (14.1 points per game) has been the Buccaneers’ scoring leader, with solid support from junior guards Micah Williams (12.5 ppg) and Justin Tubbs (12 ppg).
A little over a week ago, Hubbard and Williams led the Bucs to their sixth straight win and second-straight Atlantic Sun Conference tournament championship. Williams was tournament MVP.
So when it comes to postseason experience, there’s no question ETSU has the edge. Whether they can make that work for them remains to be seen.
“What makes the NCAA tournament so special is we don’t have to play Kentucky seven times,” Hubbard said. “We only have to play them on one given night.
“If we stick around and hang around with them, that can kind of mess them up psychologically,” Hubbard continued. “We did that (to) Pittsburgh, and we were a few plays short from beating Pittsburgh last year.”