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John Calipari says playing for UK ‘not for everybody’ because of expectations


GREENSBORO, N.C. — For the second time in as many years, Kentucky is going home after the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, and the Wildcats have now gone four years since they last played in a Sweet 16. That’s a stretch of disappointment the fan base hasn’t endured since before John Calipari’s arrival in 2009, and the Kentucky coach said he can empathize with the frustration.

“I understand what this program is about,” Calipari said after a 75-69 loss to third-seeded Kansas State on Sunday. “That’s what makes it what it is, and that’s why I tell players, it’s not for everybody because expectations are so high.”

Kentucky was ranked as high as No. 4 this season, but late struggles and an SEC tournament loss to Vanderbilt doomed the Wildcats to a 6-seed in the NCAA tournament. They escaped Providence in the opening round but struggles from Antonio Reeves (1-of-15 shooting) and Jacob Toppin (2 points on 1-of-7 shooting), along with a quiet finish for star forward Oscar Tshiebwe, doomed the Wildcats against Kansas State.

Calipari tried to deflect blame from Reeves, in particular, but he suggested the immense expectations that followed his team throughout this season may have played a part in some of his stars’ struggles.

“My concern are these kids, and I tried to keep [those expectations] off of them,” Calipari said. “Obviously, with a couple, maybe I didn’t do as good a job as I thought I did. I wanted them to just play, have fun, enjoy the experience.”

The NCAA tournament experience has been brief for Kentucky in recent years. After making the Elite Eight in 2019, the 2020 tournament was shelved due to COVID-19, and the Wildcats missed the 2021 tournament altogether. Last year, UK was a 2-seed but was ousted in the opening round by Saint Peter’s.

Now, Kentucky is going home early again in 2023, and even Calipari struggled to make sense of it.

Cason [Wallace] goes 9-for-11 and gets nine rebounds,” Calipari said after the game. “We outrebounded them by 19. We only have five turnovers in the second half. And we lose? And we lose.”

It was a game in which Kansas State was 0-for-12 from 3 in the first half and still led at the break. It was a game in which Tshiebwe was a dominant force, scoring 25 points and grabbing 18 rebounds, including nine on the offensive glass.

And yet, over the final 5:45, Tshiebwe had just two points and one rebound as Kentucky saw a 56-54 lead turn into a five-point loss.

The end result, Calipari said, was Sunday’s performance looked too much like some of Kentucky’s other bungled opportunities this season.

“This is what happened in certain games,” he said. “You don’t have to make them all, you just can’t miss them all. And we’ve had games like that. … You needed one more guy to go get baskets and play with that swagger you have to have in this tournament.”

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