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Kentucky's 'Not Allowed To Lose' NCAA Tournament


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Time for sports.


SIMON: And coming up, we'll talk about the scandal rocking the NFL. But first, in the NCAA last night: North Carolina needed overtime to put away Ohio. Kansas defeated NC State. Baylor beat Xavier. And Kentucky toppled Indiana 102 to 90. And with that win, the powerhouse Wildcats moved into the elite 8 of the tournament. NPR's Mike Pesca reports.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: It hard to imagine anyone liking the Kentucky Wildcats who isn't already a Kentucky Wildcat fan - which doesn't mean the team is hurting for support. Thousands of their blue clad gang of followers descend on any location the Wildcats travel to. In the case of yesterday's game, the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.


PESCA: It's not that the players on the Cats aren't all perfectly nice young men. It's that in a sport, and especially a tournament where underdogs capture hearts, Kentucky is so stocked with talent and so effortlessly athletic that it's almost unfair. At times, it seems as if somewhere in Lexington there is a giant vending machine that dispenses future first round NBA draft picks and only coach John Calipari has the correct change. The coach acknowledges the pressure that comes with that.

JOHN CALIPARI: You know, it seems like there's only one team that is not allowed to lose in this tournament, and that's us.

PESCA: Actually, it's not that a Wildcat loss is impermissible. It's that it seems impossible. Take last night's game. This season, Kentucky allowed opponents an average of 59 and a half points a game. Last night, Indiana went for 90. Calipari said...

CALIPARI: If you told me the team we're playing today, Indiana, was going to score 90 points and shoot 52 percent from the floor, I was going to have to tell you, wow, it'd been a nice season. Hate it to end that way, but it's been a nice season. We won.

PESCA: That's because Kentucky scored 102. These Wildcats can play the fusillade as easily as the fortress. Indiana forward Derek Elston offered this terse assessment of the Cat.

DEREK ELSTON: They're long. They're fast. They can shoot the ball well. You've just got to play hard.

PESCA: Elston just named the three basic ways a team can beat you. He's saying, in shorthand, that the Wildcats dominate every aspect of the game. Add to the skills the fact that last night they were motivated. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who doesn't turn 19 until September, was miffed at pregame reports that he would be leaving Kentucky after the season ended.

MICHAEL KIDD-GILCHRIST: I was mad. It was a false statement.

PESCA: Everyone knows that Kidd-Gilchrist is going to be a high draft pick. In fact, the only thing stopping him from being the top pick may be the presence of his fellow Kentucky freshman Anthony Davis. But Davis was in foul trouble early and only scored 9 points. Kidd-Gilchrist picked up the slack and poured in 24.

A team with seven players who each averaged over 25 points in high school could mean that every night there are six guys pouting that they're not getting enough shots. Instead, Calipari says the team's depth is freeing.

CALIPARI: They know they can rely on each other, and they really like each other. So there's no pressure on any one player. And I think the great teams go into it knowing that we're going to be there for each other so I can let loose. I can go play.

PESCA: Calipari doesn't burden the team with too much video preparation or too many scouting reports. On Thursday, the team skipped all the other games and opted instead for a viewing of "21 Jump Street." It's the luxury of knowing that you are the headache for every opponent, that if you play your game no one can stop you.

Calipari has had teams almost this talented before. He's been to two finals and another Final Four, one of which is even officially acknowledged by the NCAA. Rules violations have wiped the other two away.

He doesn't seem to worry. People assume, Calipari says, that coaching such a talented group is hard. Not so.

CALIPARI: You know what's hard? When your players are bad. That's really hard.

PESCA: Standing in the way of Kentucky's attempt to reach the Final Four is Baylor. A pair of Baylor players could be among the top 20 picked in next years NBA draft. Since three Kentucky players could go in the top 10, the Wildcats won't be intimidated.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mike Pesca first reached the airwaves as a 10-year-old caller to a New York Jets-themed radio show and has since been able to parlay his interests in sports coverage as a National Desk correspondent for NPR based in New York City.