In an effort to bring you the most comprehensive coverage of the Kentucky basketball team’s postseason run, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be teaming up throughout UK’s journey in the SEC Tournament and NCAA Tournament. You can find stories on the team at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog.
NEW ORLEANS — Considering this Southeastern Conference Tournament doesn’t mean much for his team’s résumé – John Calipari repeated Thursday that the three games in three days does little for his team other than tire them out – Friday’s quarterfinals matchup with LSU sure has the feeling of a rather interesting game.
Maybe it’s because thousands upon thousands of fans have ascended upon New Orleans, giving up, as Calipari noted again Thursday, their vacation, rent and car money.
Maybe it’s because LSU, at 18-13 on the season, is narrowly hanging on to hopes of an NCAA Tournament berth.
Perhaps it’s even the fact that just across the street of New Orleans Arena, site of this week’s tournament, is where the Final Four will take place in less than a month.
But the most intriguing story lines heading into Friday’s game at 1 p.m. ET (SEC Network) are actually two LSU players: Malcolm White and Anthony Hickey.
First, let’s address White.
In the second half of Kentucky’s 74-50 romp in Baton Rouge, La., at the end of January, White reached out and grabbed Davis by the shoulders and intentionally dragged him to the floor to prevent a breakaway layup. The play, in real time and on replay, looked brutal.
“It looked awful,” Coach Cal conceded Friday.
And it earned White an automatic ejection.
In the aftermath, White was torn down and criticized for his flagrant foul by both fan bases. His head coach, Trent Johnson, encouraged him to write a letter of remorse to Davis and Calipari, to which Calipari responded and accepted.
“That’s the heat of the moment,” Calipari said. “They’re playing the No. 1 team in the country, we start beating them bad and the kid gets frustrated and grabs him. I don’t think he meant to hurt anybody, but I think he was like ‘OK, I’m going to foul this kid hard,’ and he did. It looked awful. I don’t think the kid has any ill will toward us or Anthony or anything like that. It’s just one of those things.”
Earlier in the day, White expressed genuine remorse and shame for a play he says is “not the type of guy I am.”
“I knew when I made that play, I made that bad decision, I knew that it was going to haunt me for the rest of my life,” White said.
White, who did not play in LSU’s 70-54 victory over Arkansas on Thursday, said he will personally reach out to Davis on Friday to “apologize to him face to face, man to man.”
But chances are it will do nothing to spare him the consequences from Big Blue fans, who are expected to show up huge numbers Friday and pepper White in LSU’s backyard.
“I know they’re going to be on me, but it’s just a part of the game, part of the fans,” White said. “That’s what they get their joy out of, getting on us and trying to get us out of our game. I use it as motivation as well.”
Speaking of motivation, Hickey will have plenty Friday in his second game against his home-state’s team. The freshman publicly looked forward to his first matchup with Kentucky after getting overlooked when he was making a college decision, but he didn’t fare well the first time.
Playing against a much longer, more physical defender than he had played against all year in Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Hickey was limited to five points on 2-of-6 shooting.
“I’ll adjust to it by using my speed more,” Hickey said. “I looked at the film and I’m going to watch it today on what I can do better. It’s got to be one dribble and go by. I was hesitant. You always adjust to it on the next time you play somebody like that.”
Hickey said he’s looking forward to getting another shot against the No. 1 team and a “rival,” but he’s not intimidated by Kentucky’s length or talent.
“You’ve always got to respect (them) because they’ve been working hard,” Hickey said. “They’ve got great talent over there and Coach Cal knows how to use it. It’s great talent over there, (but) we’ve got great talent over here. We put our stuff on just like they put their stuff.”
Coach Cal noted Thursday that LSU’s guards did not shoot the ball well in the first meeting (1 of 9 from 3-point land) and expects the Tigers to make more in the rematch. Calipari is also wary of McDonald’s All-American Johnny O’Bryant, who posted a double-double (18 points, 11 rebounds) in the rout of the Razorbacks.
“He was a beast,” Calipari said. “He was as good as big guy I watched all day, going after balls and scoring around the basket and playing with a smile on his face. He was really good today. This is a tough challenge for us.”
Kentucky figures to be heavy favorites Friday nonetheless, but Calipari called the first game of the postseason the hardest game of the tournament, pointing to last season’s quarterfinals matchup with Ole Miss.
“Every year I’ve done this, the hardest game is that first game, mainly because you get a bye and they’ve played and they’re excited and they’ve built their confidence and your team is running into a tournament,” Calipari said. “All these guys have never played in a tournament format, so you don’t know what to expect.
“And I don’t know what to expect.”
We’ll find out Friday at 1 p.m. ET for the start of the postseason.
“I think this team has made strides all year and now the question is can we keep going,” Calipari said. “I want them all focused on this, what we have at hand. You only have a few weekends left now. Now it’s down to four weekends. You’ve got to stay focused on this.”
SEC Tournament notes: Cats to wear ‘Kentucky Cares’ warm-ups