Calipari, Barnhart Question UK's Seed in NCAA Tournament
ATLANTA — Kentucky coach John Calipari was short. Mitch Barnhart, his athletics director, was measured. Both seemed incredulous that the Wildcats, less than an hour after James Young slipped and Kentucky didn’t get off a final shot in a 61-60 loss to No. 1 Florida in the SEC tournament final, were handed the bracketing fate they were for next week’s Big Dance.
The Wildcats are a No. 8 seed and will play No. 9 Kansas State on Friday in St. Louis. The winner will play, barring the first victory for a No. 16 seed in NCAA tournament history, undefeated Wichita State in the round of 32. Kentucky was hoping its strength of schedule—No. 27 in KenPom.com’s ratings, No. 7 in ESPN.com’s BPI—was enough to override bad losses to South Carolina, LSU and two to Arkansas. That did not happen. Instead, the committee apparently took those losses (and the Wildcats’ other six losses to tournament teams that earned seeds between the one line and six line) and put the Wildcats squarely in the middle of the pack, the 29th seed of 68 in the field.
Calipari even joked about his team’s strength of schedule in a news conference at the SEC tournament after the Wildcats’ 70-58 win over Georgia in Saturday’s semifinal round.
“I know Florida is going to be a No. 1 seed. Whether they win it or not (Sunday), doesn’t matter, because it will be done. The seeds will be done,” Calipari said. “But where we’re seeded, I mean, who knows? But I know our strength of schedule is three or four, depending upon where you look. Three or four. Our RPI is anywhere—12, 13, 11, right in that range. I mean, that sounds like an eight seed to me, but I don’t know.”
Once Calipari learned Kentucky’s seeding Sunday evening, he addressed that comment.
“I didn’t joke. I didn’t joke,” he said. “We’re in the tournament, time to play ball. Put us where you want us. We’ve got to prove it by playing on the court.”
Even if Calipari was clearly being facetious when he said that Saturday, all jokes that land do so because they’re based in truths. Kentucky was seeded where it was because it sent a mixed signal during the season, and there was no unanimous move that made sense in bracketing the Wildcats.
Barnhart took Selection Sunday not only as the wrong treatment for his school, but for the rest of the SEC. The league got three teams in: No. 1 Florida, No. 8 Kentucky and No. 11-seeded Tennessee, which will open the tournament in Dayton at the First Four—the play-in games.
“I don’t know that the league got much respect today, and I feel bad for the other teams in our league,” Barnhart said. “We obviously had some chances to get more in, depending on how the results played out during the tournament. But I’m not sure the league got a lot of respect today. Maybe we’ve got to go earn that.”
Below is a full transcript of interviews with Calipari and Barnhart following the NCAA tournament selection show. Questions are in italics and are paraphrased for clarity.
On joking about being an eight seed Friday and if he is surprised:
I didn’t joke. I didn’t joke. We’re in the tournament, time to play ball. Put us where you want us. We’ve got to prove it by playing on the court.
On if the selection committee buys into the “story lines” angle by potentially matching up Kentucky and Wichita State:
I don’t have any idea. I have no idea. You’d have to ask them.
On having a nine seed:
We get a nine or an eight?
We’d have been an eight if we won this game. Why are you laughing for? It’s the truth. We’d have been an eight. They made their minds up that that’s what this team was. The only way you can prove them wrong is go play ball, and we played today. I’m proud of the guys, and we’ll go play, go to St. Louis and play.
On if they can keep the momentum:
Hope so. That’s the plan. That’s why we did what we did.
On how familiar he is with Kansas State:
No idea. I haven’t watched them one second. I’ll probably watch them on the plane.
On what he seed they would be if he were in control:
I called eight seed to the team, I said eight. They said, ‘There’s no way.’ I said, ‘We’re going to be an eight seed, just watch.’
On why he thought they’d be an eight seed and if he had inside information:
On what kind of a seed they played to today:
I have no idea. We lost, we lost the game, but it didn’t matter. The seed was done before the game was played. They were not moving us around. That’s who we were going to be.
On how the players reacted:
They kind of went, ‘What? OK.’ I think they’re still disappointed we lost this game, so they’re not thinking that. Now we’ve got a couple guys really almost despondent, but I’m just telling them I’m not thinking about this game we just played right now. None of it’s even entered my mind. I won’t even watch the tape, let’s move on. We’ve got to play Kansas State.
On how much better they played today overall:
We played good. We played good. We get down against the No. 1 team that many points and fight and claw back and you have your chance to win the game, you have the ball. We have the ball, a chance to win.
On how much the weekend gives him some good feelings heading to the tournament:
I’m good, great. We didn’t play great. I mean, we’ve still got some guys that are kind of in a funk right now and trying to make the game simple for them. They’ve just got to listen. Trying to make it real simple, so you can just go play harder than the other guy. That’s all I’m asking them to do, but we’ve got a couple guys that we’ve just got to get them on that same page with everybody else, and this thing is on. Now, even that being the case we had the ball with our chance. We’re down one. Get fouled, make bop, bump it in, offensive tip in, something like that.
On how important the late surge was to keep momentum from the weekend:
Yeah, it was good. It was good. I was proud of the guys. I really was.
On Andrew Harrison saying he shouldn’t have given the ball so late:
Here’s two things. You guys know I never call a timeout. And I was mad that I did, because everybody (was saying), ‘Call one! Call it!’ And I called it, and as soon as I called it I was angry, because I don’t call timeouts. Now you’re going against a set defense. (Florida was) spread out and scrambling. I could’ve stopped them and talked them through what we were gonna do and let ‘em play, but I didn’t. I called a timeout. (Harrison) did exactly what I wanted — a little bit too late. But he did what I wanted him to do. And James slipped. James would’ve probably got something up off the backboard. I don’t know if we had enough time to tip it in, but it’s what we wanted him to do. He did what we wanted.
On if Julius Randle is one of those guys he’s talking about needing to play better:
Julius has got to play better. Alex has got to play better, you know what I’m saying? Jarrod’s got to play better. But like I said, we’re one of those teams. We just got to go play now. It’s what it is. It doesn’t matter where they seed you now. It’s over. I can be mad about it. You can be mad. Everybody can be, ‘Explain yourself! They had the (No.) 4 strength of schedule. Are you telling people they don’t have to play anybody? Explain it!’ But they don’t have to explain it. They say, ‘That’s what we did.’ So we just got to go play. We got to play basketball in St. Louis.
On playing Johnson and Cauley-Stein together:
It was good. That’s where we made our run. I kind of rode with it.
On being close to fans in St. Louis:
It’s good. Yeah, it’ll be good. But it’s close to Wichita. It’s close to Kansas State. Everybody’s gonna have fans. I mean, I bet you everybody uses up their allotment.
On three SEC teams getting in:
Yeah. One of them was a play-in. I mean, Tennessee as a play-in game? I mean, that’s — again, I mean, I don’t know where this image of our league is right now. But what we just did with Florida, does that mean they’re not very good? I mean, I guess if you say it enough and say it enough it becomes real. But we’ll have to see.
On if he’d be upset to see Kentucky in his bracket if he coached Wichita State:
He’s not worried about anybody. I’ve had that team, when I was at UMass. And we weren’t worried about anybody else. Didn’t matter who we played, we were comfortable. And if it’s an 8 and 9 seed, they’re, like, ‘I don’t care who they are. They’re still an 8 or 9 seed.’ And we got to win. I’m not worried about Wichita and they’re not worried about us. We got to win our first game, and that’s all our focus will be on. Trying to be prepared to play a really good team, a team — very physical team. So they kind of threw that out. ‘Who’s the most physical team out there? Let’s… .’ Boom. I mean, it’s a physical game and it’s gonna be a tough game.
On if he got what he wanted this weekend in terms of changing his team’s attitude:
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Again, you got to get everybody in on it. OK? We still had a little disconjointed. And we still were good enough, even that being the case. But it almost has to make the point, you know, like ‘OK, now do you get it?’ And let’s go from there.
Really, really proud of our kids. Obviously we’re going to have to go play our way through all of that. I don’t know that it’s really respectful of our league. Our league’s a difficult league with a lot of really good teams, adn we played hard. Did a really nice job here at this tournament. Took the No. 1 seed in the country to a one-point game, but clearly, obviously the brackets are made up before it ever gets to the selection show. We weren’t even hardly finished with the game by the time that they were finished. Clearly they were done a while back. I would have been curious as to how they could have justified if we won the game on a last-second shot, having the SEC tournament champion be an eight-seed. It’s very surprising, to be real honest with you. I thought when the committee and those folks ask you to play strength of schedule and those kind of things, that’s what I think we do. We play a difficult strength of schedule. We’ve beat some teams that clearly are seeded ahead of us. Sometimes that happens. I get that. But I’m really, really proud of our kids and the way they responded in the tournament and the way we’re playing, and I hope we play with a little chip on our shoulder and go prove some people wrong.
On if he’ll lobby to have the SEC title game moved earlier in the day:
I think it’s a lot of TV-driven stuff right now. If they’re going to make their decisions ahead of time and then Sunday doesn’t count, then that’s—there’s no real reason to move it. But if it does matter and it does have an effect on seedings and bracketing, then we need to think about that. Clearly, television is setting the agenda of when they play that game. We’ve been playing at noon an awful long time. The 3:15 start’s clearly later than what we’ve been playing. I thought our kids fought and gave great effort today. It’s a really, really good tournament for our kids …
(Strange sound effect plays extremely loudly over sound system)
Voices from above echo everything that I’m saying. Clearly, clearly everybody’s in agreement with what I’m saying, so thank you very much.
On he detects an anti-Kentucky bias, that the committee found the most physical team and put it against Kentucky:
I’m not in the room, I can’t determine what’s going on in anybody’s thoughts, and that’s for the committee to answer to that, not me. I do believe that we’ve got a very difficult path and obviously some really difficult games ahead of us, and if we find our way through it will have been well-learned.
On the attitude toward the SEC and Tennessee’s seeding:
Yeah, I’m disappointed for them. Tennessee beat the No. 1 team in the country—or the No. 1 team in one of the regions, Virginia, early on in the year. I thought they played extremely well down the stretch and they’re a very physical, very good basketball team. I thought they represented themselves well, played Florida really hard yesterday. I don’t know that the league got much respect today, and I feel bad for the other teams in our league. We obviously had some chances to get more in, depending on how the results played out during the tournament. But I’m not sure the league got a lot of respect today. Maybe we’ve got to go earn that.
On if he thinks the committee looks at TV matchups, like the preseason No. 1 against the current undefeated team:
I don’t know. I’ve sat on the baseball selection committee, and that was years ago. It’s a little bit different, I think, sitting in the basketball room. I clearly—you’d have to go ask them.
On how far this team has come in a week’s time:
I’m really proud of them. They’ve come a long way, and they’ve worked really, really hard. They’ve made some adjustments the way they’re playing the game, and their attitude—I’m really proud of their effort and the way they represented Kentucky. I was happy that the fans that came down here to Atlanta, I’m very appreciative of them. We had a great crowd here in Atlanta. I’m so happy that they got to see a very, very, very competitive, really strong tournament run by our guys. We’re one shot and one slip away from maybe taking home a trophy, and you learn from that and hopefully you play on.
On the irony of the team some thought could go 40-0 possibly playing 34-0 Wichita State in Round of 32:
Oh, I don’t think much about irony, to be honest with you.
On if he thinks that was accidental:
I have no idea. I have no idea. I think you give the committee too much credit if you start talking about those kinds of thought processes.
On him not thinking that’s possible with Pitino vs. Manhattan and the Cards in UK’s bracket:
I’m not gonna go there. Y’all figure that out.
On the committee having his athletic director peers on it, and if he would bring up any of his qualms with the selection process:
They’re honest guys. Don’t ever question the integrity of the guys in the room. They’re good people. No one’s out there trying—I don’t think, in my mind, that any … I would hope that if I’m sitting in the room and have an opportunity, you do what’s right. And I think basically people try to do what’s right. Sometimes it gets difficult and that’s hard. It’s a hard job. I’m not going to ever sit here and say we know what (happens). It’s hard if you’re not sitting in there and you don’t know what’s going on and what conversation is being had.
Now having said that, do I agree? No, I don’t. I don’t agree. But I’m never going to question the integrity of the guys in the room. They’re good people and I know a lot of them very personally and I’m not—I’ve been in this business a long time, and most of them have been in the business a long time, too. It’s not for lack of effort. It’s not for lack of effort.
On at least getting sent to nearby St. Louis:
Yeah. But tell me where our fans won’t go. They go everywhere, so they could’ve shipped us to San Diego and we’d have been just fine. They’d have showed up. Our fans are awesome. Love ‘em.
On what the league can do to improve its profile, respect:
Play better basketball. We gotta get better from the bottom up. We’ve gotta get better from the bottom up. But having said all that, I don’t think they were very respectful to our league.
On the league being 4-15 against ranked teams:
Yeah, but go look at some of the records of some of the teams in the other leagues, too. They’re not a whole lot better than that when you’re talking about top-10, top-20 matchups. There’s not that huge discrepancy that everybody wants to make it out to be.
On whether there’s something procedurally that can be done:
That’s sort of out of my jurisdiction. I feel bad for our kids. I thought they deserved better. I thought they deserved better.
On whether serving on the NCAA baseball selection committee gave him perspective on the process:
Yeah, because I was in the room a couple times when some teams got left out and I got those phone calls. Yeah, I’ve been on that side of it. So, yeah, it’s hard. It doesn’t matter what sport it is; emotions and kids are the same. And they’re still—it means a lot to them to be able to play in tournaments and games, so I’ve gotten those phone calls when teams got left out. And I remember a couple specific ones very vividly, and I don’t need to revisit that, but I do remember those phone calls. You sit there and say, ‘Did we make the right call?’ You get to a spot where you make—and then matchups and everybody says, ‘Gosh dern, what were you thinking?’ But having said that, all of that—it is a difficult task—I just don’t think we sometimes get the respect we deserve. Cal does a tremendous job coaching this team and he did a great job getting us ready to play in this tournament. Hopefully we’ll be able to learn from what we’ve done and go play hard.
Kentucky scored 14 unanswered points midway through the second half, cutting the No. 1 Gators’ lead to one point. Florida answered, but Kentucky got back to one point at 61-60 on the final possession. Out of a Kentucky timeout, Andrew Harrison ran the clock down to about five seconds, drove and pitched back to James Young, who was curling around from the corner.
Young slipped and never got a handle on the ball. Nobody ever really recovered the ball, and the clock expired. Kentucky had lost. In less than an hour, it would forget all about the game; the NCAA tournament selection show was coming right up.