ATLANTA – Kentucky coach John Calipari understands the expectations associated with having the nation's most talented team.
"It seems like there's only one team in this tournament that's not allowed to lose in this tournament," Calipari said Friday night after his top-seeded Wildcats defeated No. 4 seed Indiana 102-90 in an NCAA South Regional semifinal at the Georgia Dome. "And that's us."
Don't worry John. If the Wildcats (35-2) keep playing the way they did Friday night, the team that's not allowed to lose isn't going to lose.
Indiana (27-9) is one of two teams to beat Kentucky this season and seemingly did everything necessary to beat the Wildcats again. The Hoosiers got Anthony Davis in foul trouble. They became the first team to shoot better than 50 percent against Kentucky all season. They got big performances from their best players – Cody Zeller and Christian Watford.
And they still lost by double digits.
"They've got a guy coming off the bench that's going to be a first-round pick in Darius Miller," Indiana coach Tom Crean said. "They're tremendous."
Kentucky didn't play typical UK defense with Davis on the bench, but the Wildcats were virtually unstoppable on offense while racking up the largest point total ever allowed by Indiana in an NCAA tournament game. They won the highest-scoring game of this year's tournament to earn a South Regional final date with third-seeded Baylor, which beat Xavier 75-70 in the other semifinal.
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There's little doubt the Wildcats are the best team still alive. Consider the dilemmas facing all the other No. 1 seeds. Michigan State is gone. Syracuse is playing without center Fab Melo. North Carolina doesn't know when, or if, star point guard Kendall Marshall will return.
Kentucky remains at full strength and proved Friday it can survive the absence of its best player.
Davis picked up two fouls in the first six minutes of the game and missed the rest of the first half. Without Davis' shot-blocking presence, Indiana didn't hesitate to drive into the lane and attack the rim. The Hoosiers made 12 of its first 16 shots after Davis left the game and ended up shooting 18 of 31 in the first half.
Yet the Hoosiers still trailed 50-47 at halftime because they couldn't stop Kentucky. Davis may be the nation's best player, but he's one of three freshman phenoms on this roster. Any one of them can deliver at any time.
Guard Marquis Teague had his big moment last Saturday when he had 24 points and seven assists in an 87-71 triumph over Iowa State. Friday, it was forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's turn. He had scored a total of 16 points in his past three games and admitted he was in a slump. Indiana apparently noticed and seemed to leave him unguarded on a number of occasions early in the game. Kidd-Gilchrist responded with 24 points and 10 rebounds in one of his best games of the season.
"I was kind of mad about it at first, but I got the ball and I did what I did," Kidd-Gilchrist said in reference to the lack of attention he received from Indiana's defense. "That was my first time experiencing that. I didn't know what to do at first. I was like, 'What is this?' "
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Kidd-Gilchrist was one of five Wildcats to score in double figures even on a night when Davis was held to nine points in 25 minutes.
Kentucky's inability to guard Indiana in the first half without Davis on the court at least gave future opponents some reason for hope. If you can get Davis in foul trouble, Kentucky's outstanding defense isn't nearly as imposing.
But it's tough to find other flaws. This team simply doesn't make the mental mistakes you might expect from a freshman-laden squad facing such high expectations.
And remember when you could count on Calipari-coached teams to struggle from the free-throw line? That isn't the case with this group. Kentucky led the SEC in free-throw percentage this season and went an astounding 35 of 37 from the line against Indiana. The three freshman starters – Kidd-Gilchrist, Davis and Teague – were a combined 21 of 22.
"Everybody is like, 'This must be a hard team to coach,' " Calipari said. "Folks, it isn't. 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."
There's little doubt at this point that Calipari has the nation's best team. Of course, that doesn't mean much in the NCAA's single-elimination format.
Who actually thought Connecticut was the nation's top team last season? Duke wasn't as good as Kansas or Kentucky for most of the 2009-10 campaign, yet the Blue Devils were cutting down the nets at the end of the season.
Calipari realizes this as well as anyone. He probably had the nation's best team at Memphis in 2008, but a collapse down the stretch in the championship game cost the Tigers a title. Kentucky's 2010 team featured five first-round draft picks, but an inability to hit 3-point shots against West Virginia kept the Wildcats out of the Final Four.
No wonder Calipari is doing everything possible to make sure the Wildcats don't get caught up in the pressure surrounding their status as tournament favorites. Instead of watching the other regional semifinals Thursday, the Wildcats went to a theater and watched "21 Jump Street."
Calipari also keeps the scouting reports as simple as possible. While the coaches do exhaustive research on each potential foe and its tendencies, Kentucky's players merely watch a four-minute film session the day of the game detailing what they need to know about their opponent. They spend the rest of the time working on their own performance.
"I want them worried about us," Calipari said. "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 have to worry about it. You worry about us."
Why should they worry about the other team? It's evident at this point that if Kentucky plays its best basketball, nobody's going to beat them.
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