John Calipari offered during his media conference before Kentucky’s first practice at the Final Four to write down what would happen at the beginning of Saturday’s national semifinal against Wisconsin.
“I know what’s going to happen at the beginning of this game,” said Calipari, seated to the right of Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan. “I can tell you if you want to I’ll write it down and you can open it up after. They’re young. Seven freshmen are playing. … Well, we know our guys are going to get in front of 75,000, look around and think, Oh, my.”
Ryan said the Badgers, with the same number of seniors in the starting lineup as Kentucky has on its roster, arrive in Texas with the right frame of mind. Even if there is a massive amount of pomp and circumstance to wrap their heads around.
All four teams got their first look at AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys, converted to a basketball stadium with the 100 feet of hardwood dwarfed by the HD screen above — the equivalent of 4,920 52-inch flatscreens quilted together.
“We got here through an absolute mine field and happened to not step on a mine. I don’t even know what to call what we went through,” said Calipari, who piloted Kentucky through a rough and tumble Midwest Region to become the first coach to beat the previous NCAA national champion and runner-up in the process. “Now my whole mission is to make sure we’re not satisfied. I think we got here by coming together. By absolutely accepting that if we don’t do this together, we’re all going down.”
Ryan said the Division III championship teams he had at Wisconsin-Platteville played in front of crowds closer to 5,000. The NCAA added 90-minute practices for all four teams on the AT&T Stadium court, a change from the past, when players had one open shootaround — Friday with media and fans in attendance — and one closed session Saturday morning to get acclimated to the vast shooting background and Super Stadium setup.
“Whether it’s Division I or Division III, you got to manage emotions and energy and try to channel it the right way and get everybody concentrating on what it is we do and don’t try to be somebody that we’re not,” Ryan said. “So again, we try to encourage our players to take in the ambiance and the surroundings, and but when it comes time to play, then just be who you are.”
Wisconsin senior guard Ben Brust, who played three minutes per game as a freshman with the Badgers, said Ryan is quick to remind the team not to count on Kentucky losing the game based on youth. The moment, Brust pointed out, hasn’t been too big yet for the freshman-laden Wildcats in this tournament.
“Even though they are five freshmen, they have obviously proven that they can get the job done. You don’t get to the Final Four right now for no reason,” Brust said.