BOISE, Idaho — Even for Kentucky, this team is young.
The program and coach that essentially created the term “One and Done” have taken the fascination with freshmen to an entirely new place.
The fifth-seeded Wildcats (24-10) have been using an all-freshman starting lineup coming into Thursday’s first-round game against No. 12 Davidson (21-11). Led by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, freshmen have accounted for 81.5 percent of Kentucky’s minutes this season, 86 percent of its points and 72 percent of its rebounds.
All those are, by far, the highest numbers freshmen have produced in John Calipari’s nine seasons at Kentucky. That helps explain why expectations were relatively low for the Wildcats coming into the season, as well as why they head into the NCAA tournament playing their best basketball.
And why, despite winning the SEC Tournament last week, Calipari is the first to admit he has no idea what to expect when the NCAA Tournament kicks off Thursday.
“I’m a little worried about them walking onto this court,” he said. “We’ve built toward this moment all season, but I really don’t know. I know what this team is capable of, and I’ve tried to paint that picture in their mind: This is what we are when we’re at our best.”
Though he wasn’t pressed on the pros and cons of “One-and-Done,” Calipari used his typically engaging session with the media to, as usual, vehemently defend the system for which he still receives the bulk of the blame (and credit). His general idea: Who is the NCAA to take money out of great players’ pockets, especially when they go to class and get good grades, the way most Kentucky players do, over whatever amount of time they do spend in college?
On the court, though, the constant shuffling of the roster forces the coach to hit the reset button every year. Never more than this year, especially after a four-game losing streak in February.
“It’s not easy,” said Davidson coach Bob McKillop, who has known Calipari since Cal recruited one of his top high school players, Kennard Robinson, to UMass three decades ago. “Everyone thinks, ‘If I had those players, I’d have that kind of team.’ But he’s taken them and put them together as a team, even though they were all the stars when they were in high school.”
Davidson is now 10 years removed from its turn as the tournament’s underdog darling. Steph Curry averaged 32 points a game to lead the (other) Wildcats to within one basket of the Final Four in 2008. McKilliop’s team hasn’t won an NCAA game since, but two things have remained the same: They are disciplined, and they love shooting 3s. Led by Peyton Aldridge and Kellan Grady, they average 27 attempts a game (16th most in the country).
“They’re an execution team, we’re an inexperienced team,” Calipari said. “They average 30 3-point shots a game. If they make 20, it’s been a heck of a season for us.”
Other things to watch in the South region Thursday:
LOOKING OUT FOR NO. 1: Freshman Deandre Ayton makes his NCAA Tournament debut when No. 4 Arizona (27-7) plays No. 13 Buffalo (26-8). If he keeps playing the way he has all year, he may stick around for a couple weeks. Ayton is averaging 20.3 points and 11.5 rebounds, and has a good chance to be the top pick in the upcoming NBA draft.
The 7-foot-1 center is also part of the controversy swirling around Arizona’s program. Coach Sean Miller has denied doing anything wrong in the wake of an ESPN report that said he’d been caught on FBI wiretaps discussing a $100,000 payment to Ayton when Ayton was a recruit.
Miller deflected a number of questions about the probe and the story Wednesday. Asked if he was still enjoying coaching as much as he has in the past, he said, “You probably know the answer to that.”
BACK IN TEXAS: Before taking the Tennessee job three years ago, coach Rick Barnes was wearing a different “T” with a different shade of orange.
Barnes will coach his 100th game with the Volunteers (25-8) when they play 14th-seeded Wright State (25-9) at American Airlines Center in Dallas. The arena is about three hours from the Texas campus in Austin, where Barnes was 402-180 with 16 NCAA Tournament appearances in 17 years. He is 4-0 in NCAA games at the AAC.
“Oh, I don’t have to come back here to have good memories about Texas. I’ve got friends I talk to a lot, and my daughter still lives in Austin with my grandkids,” Barnes said. “The way I feel about the University of Texas, I don’t think that will ever leave. … I just feel that God had another plan for me to be in Knoxville, Tennessee, and I’m thankful for the blessing that he’s given me.”
AGAINST CINDERELLA?: Miami coach Jim Larranaga knows just how good a No. 11 seed can be in the NCAA Tournament. That George Mason team that Larranaga took to the NCAA Final Four in 2006 — it was a No. 11 seed.
His Hurricanes (22-9) are on the other side this time, as the No. 6 seed in Dallas against No. 11 Loyola-Chicago (28-5), which has won 10 in a row and 17 of 18. The Raiders, in their first NCAA Tournament since 1985, also won Dec. 6 at then-No. 5 Florida.
“They haven’t lost in a very, very long time … they’re going to believe that they can win this game,” Larranaga said. “They actually the favorite in terms of if you read all the prognosticators. They’re calling them the Cinderella already.”
AP Sports Writer Stephen Hawkins contributed to this report.