Kentucky Wildcats vs. Oakland Golden Grizzlies Pick & Prediction MARCH 21st 2024

PITTSBURGH — While Kentucky fans anxiously await another deep run in the NCAA Tournament, John Calipari is asking, “What’s the worst that could happen?”

One of the country’s proudest bluebloods, Kentucky (23-9) hasn’t seen a Sweet 16 since 2019, nor a Final Four since 2015. Calipari, the Wildcats’ coach of 15 years, has borne the brunt of their high expectations since their last national title came in 2012.

Calipari is shrugging off questions about pressure as Kentucky, the third seed in the South Region, begins its latest postseason quest Thursday against 14th-seeded Oakland.

“I don’t feel that, come on now,” Calipari told reporters. “Come on. I’ve done this how long? And what’s the worst that could happen? It’s already happened to me. …

“This isn’t about me, this is about these kids,” he continued. “So that’s the reason I try to take all the pressure off them.”

Most of Kentucky’s freshman-laden roster was not around for the stunning first-round loss to No. 15 seed Saint Peter’s in 2022 or the second-round exit at the hands of Kansas State last year.

While fifth-year senior Antonio Reeves has racked up 20.0 points and 4.2 rebounds per game, Rob Dillingham and Reed Sheppard — arguably Kentucky’s two best all-around players — are freshmen who come off the bench.

Sheppard was named the National Freshman of the Year by the USBWA Monday. The son of Kentucky legend Jeff Sheppard — the 1998 Final Four Most Outstanding Player — is shooting a white-hot 52.5 percent from 3-point range this season and averaging 12.8 points, 4.5 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 2.5 steals per game.

Dillingham averages 15.4 points and 3.9 assists. He, Sheppard and freshman classmates D.J. Wagner, Justin Edwards and Aaron Bradshaw will look to Reeves for veteran leadership.

“Teams are desperate, definitely,” Reeves said. “They’re going to give all they got, 100 percent effort the whole 40 minutes. You just can’t let up. Everybody got to be dialed in to what they have to do out there. That’s what I tell our young guys, just make sure you stay focused all 40 minutes.”

Oakland (23-11) won both the regular-season title and the conference tournament in the Horizon League. The Golden Grizzlies enter having won eight of their past nine and 17 of their past 20 games.

Calipari is friends with Oakland coach Greg Kampe, the longest-tenured active coach in Division I at 40 years.

“I’d been texting with Cal,” Kampe told WXYZ in Detroit, “and I said, ‘We’ll probably end up playing,’ as a joke. He goes, ‘We better not,’ you know, and it happens. It’s sad because every time I get in this thing, I play a close friend.”

It’s the first trip back for Kampe’s crew since back-to-back bids in 2010 and 2011.

In Oakland’s 83-76 win over Milwaukee in the Horizon League championship game, do-it-all senior Trey Townsend dropped a career-high 38 points on 12-of-22 shooting from the floor. Townsend leads the Golden Grizzlies in scoring (16.9), rebounds (7.8), assists (3.1) and steals (1.3).

Townsend’s father played for Kampe, and Oakland was the forward’s dream school.

“To think 10, 12 years ago, I was sitting up in these stands just dreaming that I could be part of this team, not even thinking that it would amount to what it has so far, it’s such a special thing,” Townsend said.

–Adam Zielonka, Field Level Media

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