John Calipari and the Kentucky Wildcats entered the 2023 NCAA Tournament with many still thinking of the way last season ended.
The Wildcats were bounced in the first round by St. Peter’s, last year’s Cinderella of the NCAA Tournament, putting immense pressure on Calipari and his 2022-23 Kentucky team to bounce back.
On Friday, Kentucky did bounce back, beating the No. 11 seed Providence Friars, 61-53.
“It was a big relief, obviously. I knew what this team was capable of,” forward Jacob Toppin said after the game. “So, we got the job done. Props to my teammates. We all stuck together. Even when they made their run. We didn’t put our heads down. We kept fighting.
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“We did the little things that won us the game.”
Senior guard Antonio Reeves led Kentucky in scoring, connecting on five of nine shots from beyond the 3-point line, finishing the night with 22 points.
Reigning National Player of the Year Oscar Tsheibwe was a monster on the glass, grabbing 13 rebounds — eight on the offensive glass — in the first half, finishing the night with 25 boards.
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Before the season, Calipari told Kentucky fans to be patient with his team, saying they may not love the initial results.
“I like the pieces,” Calipari said in a video prior to the year. “We got the Player of the Year, we’ve got another first-team all-conference, we’ve got good young guys. But let me explain to you, and you know I’m honest about stuff. We’re not where we need to be right now.
“And I’m looking at November and December saying, ‘We could be a little shaky.’”
And Kentucky was “shaky,” beginning the year ranked fourth in the preseason rankings before losing three of its first four games in the SEC.
But the Wildcats went 11-3 the rest of the way in the conference, grabbing a No. 4 seed in the tournament after losing to Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament.
Now, Calipari has his team advancing, awaiting the winner of Montana State-Kansas State for a second-round matchup Sunday.