CRAWFORD | While Buffalo basks in the limelight, it's business as usual for Kentucky
While Buffalo is getting the full media darling treatment, Kentucky's players, used to the national spotlight, are focused on trying to keep the Bulls' Cinderella story from picking up momentum.
BOISE, Idaho (WDRB) – In the college basketball adaptation of Cinderella, our hero (or heroine) comes out of relative obscurity, gets to the ball, knocks off a top seed and starts living it up in the (basket) ballroom.
There are national TV interviews. National radio shows. More CBS time than “The Good Wife.” Twitter? Are you kidding? Trending nationally. You’re praised by Charles Barkley, and you go on ESPN’s SportsCenter. Everybody loves a winner. The folks back home are going crazy, diving into perfectly good folding tables.
Multiple teams are living the Cinderella Experience (tm) in the 2018 NCAA Tournament, but none more than the Buffalo Bulls, who slayed the Arizona Wildcats to get a date Saturday with college basketball blueblood Kentucky at 5:15 p.m. in Taco Bell Arena.
Bulls’ coach Nate Oats will tell you, these are pretty heady times for his program. But even though Oats is in this position for the first time, he wasn’t born yesterday. He took his players phones away Thursday night. That buzzing sound that filled the arena, it was probably the bag of phones he had. If friends and well-wishers were blowing the players’ phones up, they didn’t see them until morning.
As for Oats, he’s had to deal with the distractions himself.
“It's been pretty crazy,” Oats said. “They've had me on every radio show I've ever listened to, I think, when you're trying to kill time. It's been great. Honestly I didn't want to turn too many of them down, because I want the program itself to get -- like I said, we never had a name. We've never been to the NCAA Tournament before Coach (Bob) Hurley got hired and I came as an assistant. Now we finally got a win. Let's build the program, and let people know what Buffalo basketball is about, let's keep the snowball going. It's been great. You get live on Scott Van Pelt, you get live on all these national television shows. You talk about the kids. The kids are great.”
Buffalo. It had to be a snowball. But it would be a game-changer, for any team or coach or program in Buffalo’s position.
“Our SID told me we had something like 1800 articles written about us since last night,” Oats said. “I told the guys, ‘Those articles will be on the Internet for the next year, ten years, let's concentrate on what we can do right now in the next 24 hours to get this next win. Then go Twitter search and Google search your name after the season, and you can spend all the time reading all the articles you want.’ Reading all those articles right now helps us zero getting the win against Kentucky. Forget it, let's move on, let's figure out how to beat Kentucky, and after the season go and do all that other stuff.”
Here’s the problem. For Buffalo, this is a once-in-a-lifetime event, and that’s the fun of it, and of this tournament.
For Kentucky, basically, it’s a normal Friday afternoon. You couldn't move in the Kentucky locker room during Thursday's media availability. Just like you can't move around anytime they open the doors.
Calipari and the Wildcats – even though most of the players are in the NCAA Tournament for the first time – aren’t in the spotlight for the first time. They’re in the spotlight all the time. They face this many cameras after an exhibition game. If they lose a fourth straight game, ESPN takes the feed of their postgame news conference live. If Calipari wants to get attention for his program, all he has to do is Tweet something.
They have no problem with the spectacle. That’s why the clock strikes midnight so often for so many good teams that put themselves in position for a "Cinderella" run. In some ways, the praise and attention are more formidable obstacles than the opponents on the court.
Most of Kentucky’s players thought they’d be facing Arizona. But they also know what Buffalo is capable of, and they see the confidence Buffalo’s players have, which is a natural spark for any competitive, high-level player.
Calipari recognizes that confidence of Buffalo. He’s seen it before.
“If I were on their team I'd feel very confident, too,” he said. “The way they played, I watched about six tapes of them, and they remind me of my UMass teams. Hard-nosed, tough, swagger, chip on their shoulder. I'm a high major player, and they are. And my UMass teams went to, I don't know, four or five Sweet 16s, a couple of Elite 8s, a Final Four, I believe. Some of my people will check those numbers, but I believe it is. And that's what I see in them.”
Buffalo has a great deal of experience. Flush off the victory over Arizona, Oats told The Buffalo News Thursday night, “Calipari’s been whining about no experience — young, young, young," Oats said. "Well, we don’t have that problem. We have some veteran guys.”
Calipari was told about that comment during his news conference Friday. He said, “I don't know if it's whining or telling the truth. I'm not whining about it. I've got a pretty good team.”
Oats, asked about the quote on Friday, eased off a bit.
“Let me clarify,” he said. “When I said Calipari whining about freshmen, I was maybe -- it was a misuse of the word. He's a pretty dang good coach. He's made known the fact that he's young all year. It's a fact. It is what it is. . . . So let's say it like it is, let's be real. I'm not going to try to disrespect anybody. But our players -- you can talk to them, too, they're a little older, they're good guys. Wes (Clark) has two kids. He's trying to catch up to me. I've got three. We can trade parenting stories. . . . We're experienced. They're inexperienced. It's no disrespect. It is what it is. It's facts.”
So here we are. Calipari also recognizes that kind of talk from Oats.
“I always say when I had a whip I would talk,” Calipari said. “I would say stuff, because I had a whip, I knew, they'd back me up, they'd go play.”
Now, we’ll see if that whip on the Buffalo sideline is one that can take them on to the Sweet 16, or just merely prod the horse pulling the basketball carriage home from the ball.
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