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Jerry Sullivan: Days of whine and Oats in Boise

BOISE, Idaho – I'm not sure where Saturday's second-round game ranks in the annals of the NCAA Tournament. But most of the media here in Boise would tell you that John Calipari-Nate Oats is one of the best talking matchups they've seen.

Just wind these two guys up and turn on the recorder. Oats has been on virtually every talk show in America since his UB team stunned Arizona on Thursday night, giving the school the first NCAA win in history and become the nation's latest upset darling. Ask Oats a question, he gives a State of the Union address.

Calipari has been here before, as he's sure to tell you in one of his rambling three-minute monologues. It's his 35th year coaching college basketball. He's won 52 games in the Big Dance and a national title. Oats has exactly one victory, which didn't stop him from tweaking Coach Cal after the big win.

"Calipari has been whining about no experience," Oats said in the emotional aftermath Thursday. "Young, young, young. Well, we don't have that problem. We've got some veterans."

The reporters here were beyond giddy at the quote. What, a coach actually uttering something provocative, risking that competitive nightmare of having the opposition -- gasp! -- put your words on the bulletin board for motivation?

Calipari wasn't exactly amused when Oats's words were relayed to him. His team starts five freshmen, which is nothing new. He's the unapologetic king of the "one and dones", a coach who takes top NBA prospects for one year and knocks their juvenile tendencies out of them before sending them along to the pros.

"Who said that?" Calipari asked when I was halfway through the Oats quote.

"Nate Oats," I said.

"I don't know if it's whining or telling the truth," Calipari said. "I'm not whining about it. I've got a pretty good team. But I am telling the truth. 'HE SHOULDN'T TELL THE TRUTH. DO NOT EVEN SAY IT. INTRODUCE 'EM AND DON'T GIVE THEIR YEAR.

"That' fine," he said. "At the end of the day, we've got to play a basketball game. Everybody's got to get in the ring and play."

The UB players aren't shrinking violets here, either. I hesitate to reach for the easy pun, but these kids are feeling their oats. Wes Clark told the nation to embrace the Bulls because they're "handsome guys, good-looking, clean-cut and dapper, good nice young men."

Ikenna Smart trash-talked Arizona's star freshman, DeAndre Ayton, saying Ayton was up against a grown man and would be uncomfortable. Oats said he knew Arizona could be beaten once he got a good look at them. His players reject the Cinderella role. They say their goal is to win the national championship.

"I mean, Kentucky is a very good team, as we all know," said junior Jeremy Harris. "But I think experience should give us just a little bit of an edge. I think the team that plays the hardest is going to come out with the win."

Calipari knows he has his hands full Saturday. He respects what he sees on film from the Bulls, a fearless team that plays fast and confident and as if it has nothing to lose.

"If they come after us and we back up, they win the game," he said. "That's just how it is. If I were on their team, I'd feel very confident, too. I watched about six tapes of them and they remind me of my UMass teams. Hard-nosed, tough, swagger, chip on their shoulder. 'I'm a high-major player'."

Maybe Calipari didn't appreciate the whiner stuff --  Oats said whiner maybe wasn't the best choice of words -- but he might see a bit of his younger self in Oats. Calipari was a brash, confident guy back when his UMass teams were dominating the A-10 and performing like a major program.

Cal was tough on his players, but they played hard for him and believed he had their best interests in heart. His Kentucky players are the same way. Love him or hate him, he's the ultimate player's coach, and Oats is the same kind of guy. He gives his players the freedom to be themselves, on and off the court.

"Coach is definitely a player's coach," said CJ Massinburg. "He basically asks us what we want to do. With some coaches, it's really a dictatorship, their way or the highway. It's not that way here."

"He gives us a ton of confidence, and that's why we play how we play," Harris said.

"They're good," Calipari said. "I'm telling you, I lived it. I had that kind of team. I had guys with chips on their shoulders. It's fun to coach these guys. I always say, when I had a whip I would talk. I knew they'd back me up. They'd go play. So it should be fun. It's going to be a hard game."

Let's hope so. We haven't had a hoop week this fun  in ages. Oats and his players have elevated the moment by having a ball. Oats is honest, maybe to a fault. But he truly believes his team is good and experienced enough to beat a team of fabulous freshmen and take UB to an improbable Sweet 16.

"Their players are going to play in the NBA," Oats said. "There's a reason that three of these guys are in the first round. The talent level is absolutely there. And when they go to the lottery, I'm going to agree with the NBA teams that took them.

"They're that good," he said. "But they're still freshmen. No disrespect to our two freshmen; they have lapses. We're experienced. They're inexperienced. It is what it is. It's facts. I'm not going to tell them they're not freshman. You are freshmen, just like Cal's been saying."

Calipari says his freshmen have come a long way. He's won a lot of games with callow NBA prospects. He said they go through a process where they learn to prepare, to be accountable to each other, to stop blaming others for their failures.

Kentucky lost four in a row in early February, all to teams that reached the NCAAs. One of Calipari's players texted him and said not to stop believing in them. Cal saw it coming together. They've been on fire since.

"We're playing like we have nothing to lose, too," he said. "If we play and they play, it's probably going to come down to who has the ball last. I'll see how the game is being played. I don't know until the game starts. Then I try to do what I have to do to keep my team in the game.

"My freshmen," he said. "I start five freshmen, by the way. I'm not whining,  just explainin'."

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