Cats ‘excited, ready’ for NCAA opener


Keith Taylor

Oscar Tshiebwe (left) and Sahvir Wheeler are all smiles during Kentucky’s press conference.

By Keith Taylor, Kentucky Today

INDIANAPOLIS (KT) — Oscar Tshiebwe was all smiles. So were his teammates on Wednesday.

“We are excited,” he said. “I can’t wait to play tomorrow.”

A loss to Tennessee last Saturday in the Southeastern Conference semifinals were a distant memory a day ahead of No. 2 seed Kentucky’s NCAA Tournament opener against Saint Peter’s, the Wildcats’ first appearance in the Big Dance since 2019.

“That game is in the past. We have an incredible opportunity here as a group to do something special in the NCAA Tournament, and that’s what I’m focused on,” Kentucky guard Kellan Grady said. “As long as I play to win, I think the rest will take care of itself.”

Sahvir Wheeler also can’t wait to begin what Kentucky hopes is the first step toward the school’s first national championship run in decade. Although the Wildcats are a big favorite to advance to the second round, Wheeler knows Kentucky can’t look past the opener.

“I think the biggest challenge obviously is getting past the first game,” he said. “As coach (John Calipari) says, the first game is the hardest. And then from then on, it’s quick turnarounds. Each weekend, if you win the next game, you get a day, break, and there is another game after that.”

Wheeler and Grady have played in the tournament previously, but Grady added playing with a different team adds a “new level of excitement.”

“We’ve gone through adversity, and we’ve gone through an entire season together,” he said. “It was amazing for us to get to March Madness and play

Kentucky when I was at Davidson. But I’m excited to embrace this challenge with our team and try our best to take care of business.”

Following the loss to the Volunteers, Calipari wanted his squad to define their roles in moving forward. Grady said the sessions were productive.

“I think all of us have a good concentration on what to do for our team and how to be most productive in helping us win,” Grady said.

Calipari added the early exit from the SEC Tournament was a “godsend” and gave the Wildcats a chance to reset and regroup.

“We scrimmaged an hour and 15 minutes (Monday),” he said. “We scrimmaged 45 minutes yesterday. What? What if someone gets hurt? I know. I know. Because that’s always in the forefront of my mind. We needed to get back to free and loose and open and playing off one another, the roles of what we needed to do. The only way you could do that is scrimmage. And because we got 10 really good players, really, we got more than that, but we could put 10 guys on the floor that — it was competitive. They went at each other.”

Those moments, combined with the regular season, give Calipari hope for a successful run in the tourney.

“Everything we do is to prepare for this moment,” he said. “In our league, how many teams defend physical and long in our league? It’s craziness. It’s hand-to-hand combat. It is. I think we’re ready, but we’ll see.”

Gametracker: Kentucky vs. Saint Peter’s, 7:10 p.m., Thursday. TV/Radio: CBS, UK Radio Network.