ATLANTA — Indiana’s Christian Watford said he has watched the ESPN commercial that shows his buzzer-beating three-pointer to beat Kentucky “a million times.”
“It’s everywhere,” Kidd-Gilchrist said.
The Wildcats, the No. 1 seed in the South Region, have been reluctant to use words like revenge or payback, but they clearly are eager for another chance against fourth-seeded Indiana in Friday’s region semifinals after being bombarded with reminders of their only regular season loss for more than three months.
After Kentucky closed the regular season with a victory at Florida on March 4, Coach John Calipari said ESPN had “done one of the greatest services for my program by having that advertisement” and that every time his players see it “they just shake their heads. [It] makes them mad.”
Kentucky, a team laden with six likely NBA players, has not shown the tendency to become complacent despite delivering a near-perfect regular season. But the Wildcats (33-2) did appear lackluster at times during a three-game SEC tournament run that concluded with a loss to Vanderbilt in the final.
When they were challenged in the NCAA tournament’s second round, confronted with a tied score with 16 minutes to play against Iowa State, the Wildcats delivered a show of force that made clear which team remains the favorite to win the national championship.
And now comes an opponent that has Kentucky’s attention after the 73-72 victory in December. Indiana Coach Tom Crean called the Wildcats “considerably better” now than they were in the Hoosiers’ victory at Assembly Hall.
Kidd-Gilchrist simply said, “We’re the best team.”
For starters, Kentucky, one of the nation’s youngest teams, was less experienced on Dec. 10 when three freshman starters were playing in just their ninth college game. The Wildcats did not listen to Calipari when he told them to foul Verdell Jones III before he crossed half court in the final seconds, before he flipped a pass out to Watford for the winning three-pointer.
Then there was Anthony Davis, who picked up two fouls within a one-minute span and spent the final 8 minutes 3 seconds of the first half on the bench. Worse, he picked up his fourth foul with 12 minutes to play and wound up playing just 24 minutes.
In 27 games since the loss, Davis has not picked up more than three fouls in any game.
“We want to play a game with no fouls,” Calipari said. “It’s not football. You think it’s a touchdown and we’ve got to drive 100 yards?
“We’ll score in five seconds. If you broke down, let him score. Give it to him. Don’t foul.”
The Wildcats have also made progress at the free throw line. In the final 49 seconds of the Indiana loss, Davis and Doron Lamb missed 2 of 3 free throw attempts, including Davis’s miss on a front end of a one-and-one.
Davis in particular has made 75.5 percent of his free throw attempts since that game. And Kentucky made all six of its attempts to close out Florida in the final 34 seconds of the SEC tournament semifinal victory. The Wildcats also made all six of their attempts in the last 26 seconds of a victory against Vanderbilt on Feb. 25.
What’s more, Jones is playing much better now. With just four points, one rebound and six turnovers, Jones was a “no-show” in the loss, Calipari said.
But the SEC’s preseason player of the year is averaging 14.4 points and 10.4 rebounds during his last five games. Calipari has emphasized that Jones concentrate on rebounding, which he did during the team’s Final Four run last season.
The Hoosiers (27-8) will be hard-pressed to duplicate their shooting performance, especially if Davis stays out of foul trouble. They shot 43.1 percent from the field. Only four Kentucky opponents all season shot better against the Wildcats.
Calipari needed a reminder of how many three-pointers Indiana made: nine.
“I know they made one really good shot at the end of the game,” Calipari said, “because I have seen it on [the] commercial about every 15 minutes.”