A few Knicks have a different reason this week for going wild for the Cats during this year’s March Madness.
Obi Toppin’s younger brother, Jacob, is a 6-foot-9 senior and starting forward on the current Kentucky squad. He came off the bench one year ago, when John Calipari’s second-seeded team shockingly was bounced in the Round of 64 by No. 15 seed Saint Peter’s to start the Peacocks’ captivating Cinderella run to the Elite Eight.
Kentucky, the No. 6 seed in the East Region this year, will face No. 11 Providence on Friday in Greensboro, N.C. If the Wildcats advance to the Sweet 16, they would play at Madison Square Garden on March 23, though the Knicks play that night in Orlando.
The Knicks have an off night at home on Sunday, March 25, however, during the Elite Eight.
“It’s really cool. They should have won the SEC tournament, but I blame Quick for that one,” Toppin said jokingly to Sports+ after Tuesday’s win in Portland, referring to teammate Immanuel Quickley. “I have a feeling they’re gonna do really well.
“I feel like Cal [Kentucky coach John Calipari] is preparing those guys — and with a little extra time to prepare because of the loss [to Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament]. It’s time for them to step up and win this year. And for sure, they could play in the Garden, right? So they gotta be at the Sweet 16. But one game at a time and just play with confidence.”
The Knicks organization resembled Kentucky’s Northeast satellite campus a few years ago for boasting several former UK players — Quickley, Julius Randle, Nerlens Noel and Kevin Knox among them — as well as assistant coach Kenny Payne, who now runs the Louisville program, and longtime Calipari confidante William “World Wide Wes” Wesley in the front office.
The 22-year-old Jacob Toppin, who played one season at Rhode Island before transferring to Lexington in 2020, ranks second on the Wildcats (21-11) in rebounding (6.9 per game) and third in points (12.5), assists (2.2) and minutes played (31.5) over 31 appearances. Senior big man Oscar Tshiebwe leads the team with 16.5 points and 13.1 boards per game.
“I probably talk to Jacob more than Obi does,” Quickley said. “I talk to Jacob every now and then, early in the season when he was going through a little rough patch, I FaceTimed him, talked to him a little bit.
“But I know Coach Cal absolutely will have those guys ready.”
You’d certainly think so, especially on the heels of last year’s massive upset loss.
“I don’t know if they’ll be caught off guard, all you can do in the tournament is go out there with confidence,” Quickley added. “That’s the name of the game, go out there with confidence and leave it all out there.”
Obi Toppin missed out on the March Madness experience with Dayton in 2020 when the tournament was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He was the collegiate player of the year that season, and the 29-2 Flyers likely would have been a No. 1 seed.
“It was tough back then, but we’re in the future now,” Toppin added. “Now I’ve got to watch my brother win it with Big Blue.”
No-go for ’Nova
There also is a decided Villanova Wildcats faction in the Knicks’ locker room with Josh Hart joining former NCAA championship teammate Jalen Brunson following a deadline deal with Portland. (Ryan Arcidiacono, a part of the package the Knicks sent to the Blazers for Hart, also is a ‘Nova alum).
These Wildcats endured a rough rebuilding year in the first season after Hall of Fame coach Jay Wright retired, finishing 17-17 and missing the Big Dance for only the second time in 18 seasons, not counting the scrapped 2020 tournament.
“Yeah, dog, I don’t know what the hell to do now,” Hart told Sports+ after Tuesday’s game. “Not in the tournament and then we just lost to Liberty [Tuesday night in the NIT]. I’m just sitting here waiting for next year, man. I’m not even doing a bracket. I ain’t doing nothing.”
Hart said a rough first year under new head coach Kyle Neptune was “disappointing,” but he noted that even Wright’s first three Villanova teams posted a combined 52-46 record and didn’t reach the NCAAs until the fourth year after he was hired away from Hofstra in 2001.
“I think you’re never going to be good every year. You gotta realize everything wasn’t sunshine and flowers with Jerold over there his first several years at Nova, either,” Hart said, using Wright’s given first name. “So sometimes it takes a little bit to get used to a new job. I think they have to continue to play good basketball and obviously kind of build on the last three weeks. But everything isn’t always sunshine, you know what I mean? But there will be more success there, I’m confident in that.”
Postcards from the road
Tying up a few loose ends from a rainy week out west:
• Brunson was not made available to the media throughout the four-game West Coast trip. He played the first two quarters in the opener in Sacramento and then sat out the final three games due to a bruised left foot that required a protective walking boot.
The Knicks traveled Wednesday and won’t hold practice on Thursday, so we’ll see whether the three additional days off before Saturday’s game against the Nuggets can accelerate his return.
• With wins over the Lakers and the Blazers — after losses to the Kings and the Clippers — the Knicks improved their road record for the season to 22-14, which is tied for the most road wins in the league. It also marks their first winning record away from MSG since 2012-13 — when they finished 23-18 — and just their second over the past 26 seasons.
• At one point on Sunday at Crypto.com Arena, I was standing behind the Lakers’ version of Celebrity Row when I noticed Spike Lee within arm’s reach. I didn’t realize immediately, however, that Denzel Washington also was standing right next to him. It was the night of the Oscars a few miles away, yet they were courtside together at Knicks-Lakers instead.
“Remember the Titans” is among my favorite all-time sports films, by the way, even if we didn’t see any “Sunshine” during our entire weeklong stay out west.
The previous day, one celebrity seated nearby who stopped by to say hello to the New York scribes during the game against the Clippers was Jeff Garlin of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” fame. He also told me The Post is his “favorite sports section,” so we have that going for us.