- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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NEW ORLEANS -- Listening to Kentucky coach John Calipari on the eve of the Wildcats' NCAA tournament opener, you’d think the old Soviet Union was coming back to play the Americans in a Miracle on Ice rematch.
But, then, when is it not entertaining with Cal?
“There’s storms, there’s lightning, people drinking their ‘Hater-ade’ and coming at you,” said Calipari, repeating the message he delivered to his No. 1 seeded Wildcats. “There are going to be things written and said. It’s all coming at you.”
And then the clincher ...
“Land the plane. Survive and advance,” Calipari said. “That’s all we’re thinking about. We’re not worried about the score and who scores and what. Just land the plane and move on.”
Kentucky, which faces No. 16 seed East Tennessee State on Thursday in the first round of the East Regional, has been both dazzling and puzzling this season -- but always ridiculously talented.
Calipari wouldn’t expect anything different from a team this young, one he’s repeatedly hailed as the youngest in the country, even though it’s actually about the 15th youngest team.
That’s OK, we won’t worry about the details.
The bigger picture is that despite Kentucky’s youth, Calipari has a team with enough talent, size and depth to win the Wildcats’ first national championship since 1998.
Of course, the first order of business is getting back to the Final Four, something Kentucky hasn’t done since its last championship season in 1998. The Big Blue Empire doesn’t need to be reminded that it’s the longest drought in Kentucky basketball history between Final Fours.
This is Calipari’s first chance to do something about that drought, but he’s more concerned about how a bunch of 18- and 19-year-olds will respond to playing in their first NCAA tournament than he is any historical significance.
“If you’re coaching in this tournament, everything is geared toward playing your best right now,” Calipari said. “You have this weekend, if you’re good enough to move on to another weekend, and then one more.
“Can you get your guys playing their best? That’s all we’re thinking.”