The College Basketball season is another week old, and the SEC consistently provides the sport with several talented players and teams. Here are the major storylines surrounding conference teams from the second weekend of NCAA Tournament play. (AP Rankings accurate up until April 1, 2019.)
1. Auburn Makes School History
If you had told me at the start of the tournament that the Auburn Tigers would be making the Final Four, I would have laughed at your face. No offense to Auburn, but I thought it was clear in the regular season that North Carolina and Kentucky were better basketball teams.
Well folks, that is why they play the games.
Not only did the Tigers completely annihilate a very good Tar Heel team, but they defeated the Wildcats on Sunday thus earning their first Final Four in school history. Let’s not understate this: This was the biggest achievement in the history of Auburn basketball.
Head Coach Bruce Pearl is sitting at the top of the college basketball world alongside Tom Izzo, Chris Beard, and Tony Bennett. I honestly did not believe that Pearl would ever find himself back to this position, but he deserves all the praise. Getting the Tigers to play their best basketball against two of the most iconic programs in college basketball history is certainly an outstanding achievement.
But still managing to play that well against Kentucky without star Chuma Okeke (a potential first-round draft pick) is incredibly impressive. After his player’s terrible injury against UNC, Pearl was able to provide one of the best soundbites of this year’s tournament.
Bruce Pearl in tears talking about Okeke’s injury ?? ? pic.twitter.com/3TnnesjKJc
— Sports ON Tap (@SONTHighlights) March 30, 2019
Overall, I’m not really sure that Auburn will beat Virginia. However, I don’t think that’s what the story should be right now. Pearl was a guy who was previously fired at Tennessee of all places, and he has now rejuvenated his career at a noted football school. This is, without question, one of the best stories from the SEC this year.
2. Kentucky Misses Fourth Straight Final Four
Not everything was good news for SEC teams this weekend. Only one team could move on from the conference matchup between Kentucky and Auburn. Sadly, the Wildcats had their season was cut surprisingly short as the program failed to make the Final Four for the fourth straight year.
We’re hurting too, Coach. We loved every second of this season. pic.twitter.com/3wG4pIYe7k
— Kentucky Basketball (@KentuckyMBB) March 31, 2019
What made this loss even more agonizing was the fact that Kentucky defeated the Tigers by almost 30 points just a month and a half ago even without Reid Travis. So, what on Earth happened here?
To be fair, this loss was the result of a multitude of different factors. First, there is the fact that the Wildcats shot an embarrassing 57% from the free throw line and 23% from beyond the arc. For what was supposedly Calipari’s best free-throw and three-point shooting team during his time at the school, this was a complete and total disaster of a shooting performance.
I don’t like to point out individual players, but Ashton Hagans and Tyler Herro had one of their worst games this season. Having your starting guards play that poorly this late in the Tournament just screams disappointment.
Finally, there is the fact that Calipari was out-coached here by Pearl. Auburn saw that they had a clear advantage offensively in the pick-and-roll, and absolutely nothing was done differently to stop it from UK’s side. Plus, not going to Quickley at all down the stretch and not calling a timeout at any point during UK’s last possession in regulation are questionable decisions at best.
Either way, the blame does not fall on any one individual. This was a total program failure across the board from the players to the coaches. That’s just the nature of the tournament sometimes. Either way, this was still another season in which the Wildcats won 30 games and made the Elite Eight. That’s a very good season, no doubt, but not winning the SEC Tournament and not making a Final Four are very disappointing results.
3. LSU Fails Without Wade
Keeping in with a very disappointing tone, the LSU Tigers failed to make the Elite Eight as they lost to a red-hot Michigan State team in the Sweet Sixteen.
Yes, the Tigers outperformed their preseason ranking this season, but they had the talent to make the Elite Eight. Their outside shooting combined with their incredible athleticism was a dangerous combination. However, they looked lost at times in the second half without their Head Coach Will Wade on the sidelines.
Is Michigan State the better team? Probably. However, I would have loved to have seen LSU take on the Spartans at full strength. That would have been a very interesting matchup.
Now, the Tigers enter a very strange offseason. What will become of Wade? How long is his suspension going to last? And what will the NCAA do to discipline LSU because we all know they will come down in some way. Overall, it stinks that their season ended this way. This was a very fun team to watch. Who knows if LSU will ever be this good again in the immediate future.
How crazy is this?!
The last time MSU played LSU in basketball, the #2 seeded Spartans beat the #3 seeded Tigers in the Sweet Sixteen.
It was 1979.
MSU went on to win the national championship.
— Evan Dean (@_EvanDean) March 24, 2019
4. Tennessee Flames Out Quick
Possibly the biggest disappointment out of this weekend’s results was that the Volunteers failed to make it past the Sweet Sixteen. That is just a travesty. Tennessee had two of the best players in the nation in Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield and neither one of them ever made it to the Elite Eight in their careers.
Purdue just happened to catch absolute fire from the three-point line in what was a classic game. No one really knew who Ryan Cline was beforehand, but his shooting performance in the second half is the stuff of legend.
Purdue-Tennessee was a #Sweet16 battle for the ages.
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 29, 2019
Similar to Auburn, this was possibly the best season in program history for the Volunteers. However, similarly to Kentucky, not winning the SEC Title game and not reaching the Final Four is an incredibly disappointing result considering their talent. The NCAA Tournament takes no prisoners, and this year was no different.
5. Let’s Talk About John Calipari
We hear the same complaints every single season in which Kentucky disappointingly losses in the NCAA Tournament: It’s all Coach Calipari’s fault. Every time the Wildcats depressingly lose to a lesser team, it’s always a constant pile on this man and yesterday was no different.
I think we can say the John Calipari experiment at Kentucky has failed.
— Kent Sterling (@KentSterling) March 31, 2019
Four straight years of no Final Fours for Cal. This wasn't his worst tourney stinkbomb but it’s definitely worthy of top-five consideration.
— Dan Wolken (@DanWolken) March 31, 2019
Why does this always happen? I will admit even I reacted strongly on social media to my disappointment of Calipari’s coaching in the second half against Auburn. I’ve already stated above the reasons why I thought he was out-coached so there is no need to go over them again.
It’s obviously nowhere close to just being any one person’s fault. The NCAA Tournament is the hardest championship to win in sports. Coach Cal isn’t the one out there on the court missing open shots and turning the ball over. That’s on the players. It’s so easy in such an emotional moment to focus all our blame on just one powerful man rather than the team as a whole.
However, despite the deep respect fans have for Calipari and for the players, it should be reasonable to hold both him and those athletes accountable. No one is above criticism no matter how many points you score, how many Elite Eight’s you reach, or how much money you make.
Is Kentucky lucky to have Coach Cal at the helm? Of course. Is he a good coach? Again, of course. Any other program in the country would kill to make as many Elite Eight’s as the Wildcats have during his time at the school.
Whether he takes another job or retires, there will come a day when John Calipari is no longer the head coach at Kentucky and on that day, I'm willing to bet it will be then and only then that a certain segment of the fanbase will realize how good they had it.
— Chris Fisher (@ChrisFisher247) April 1, 2019
However, Kentucky basketball is not “any other program.” The standard has already been set in Lexington. Wildcat fans must realize and enjoy the success the program is having while it’s here, but it’s perfectly acceptable for fans to be concerned on when the Bluegrass state will have its one shining moment once again.