As we close the book on another season of Kentucky basketball, the inevitable question becomes, how will this team be remembered?
If you go by results, the Sweet 16 finish puts this team ahead of the 2013 NIT group and the 2016 Tyler Ulis/Jamal Murray squad that lost to Indiana in the second round. A month ago, I think all of us would have gladly accepted that fate; however, a strong SEC Tournament run and a suddenly easy path to the Final Four skyrocketed our hopes for something more, making last night’s loss even tougher to swallow. The past week felt too good to be true because it was. The reality is, this team never really had all the pieces in place to make a run, a realization that’s finally settling into place.
Flash back a year to the aftermath of Kentucky’s loss to North Carolina in the Elite Eight. De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, Bam Adebayo, and Isaiah Briscoe were off to the NBA, Derek Willis, Dominique Hawkins, and Mychal Mulder graduated, and Isaac Humphries decided to return home to Australia to play professional ball. That left Wenyen Gabriel as the only returning player who logged significant minutes. Freshmen are the norm at Kentucky, but this kind of inexperience was unprecedented, even for Cal. For the first time since 2013-14, Kentucky didn’t have a veteran guard to help mold a freshman backcourt, and it showed.
Not helping matters were the injuries. In the fall, news broke that both Jarred Vanderbilt and Jemarl Baker would miss an extended amount of time, robbing Kentucky of arguably its most versatile player and the sharp-shooter they so clearly needed. In December, Quade Green got poked in the eye and a few weeks later, went down with a back injury, forcing Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to take over at point guard. Shai’s hard work and ability to get to the rim became Kentucky’s identity, but once Quade returned, he assumed Shai’s old position off the ball, making for an odd role reversal that only worked when Quade was able to hit threes. Meanwhile, Kevin Knox showed glimpses of the elite talent that he is, but lacked the consistency to be the star the team needed to rise above its youth. Hamidou Diallo reverted before our very eyes.
After Vanderbilt returned and knocked off the rust, the team had to reinvent itself once again. Just as they were finally getting into the flow, Vanderbilt got hurt again, prompting another shuffle. Thankfully, that one resulted in an SEC Championship, the unexpected confetti moment most fans had given up on. Between Wenyen Gabriel’s historic three-point performance and Sacha Killeya-Jones’ awakening, hope suddenly bloomed. The win over Tennessee in the SEC Championship seemed like a trustworthy sign that this team was capable of something. The top four seeds in the South Region fell like dominoes, illuminating the path to another great story few of us could have imagined.
Sadly, this story didn’t end with a Final Four. Instead, it ended with a frustrating loss to a team that isn’t that good but managed to expose all of Kentucky’s worst traits. Injuries and inexperience prevented this group from reaching their potential; however, the growth that we witnessed is truly remarkable. For a team that looked so bad early on, especially on defense, to morph into the one that won the SEC Tournament is proof of Calipari’s genius. He’s better than anyone at getting a young group of guys to surrender their egos for the greater good. Now, he doesn’t always manage late game situations as we would like, but Kentucky’s turnaround this year is something to be proud of, even in the light of last night’s disappointing finale.
What now? As the McDonald’s All-American Game billboard outside the hotel in Atlanta reminded me, time marches on. Some players will stay, some will go. Unlike last year, more will do the former than the latter. The cupboard will not be bare; in fact, it could include the ingredients for Calipari’s most successful squads: veterans and freshmen (with two pure shooters in Tyler Herro and the returning Jemarl Baker) along with the extra time to make it right thanks to the foreign trip in August. Now that? That’s something to get excited about.
This season will be viewed as a disappointment by most, but the image I’m left with is of Calipari embracing Nick Richards during last night’s game. Richards is a good example of a kid who just couldn’t escape his insecurities. Watching him struggle this season was hard, but Calipari never gave up on him, something we could all keep in mind in the bleak light of the morning after.
— David Scott (@Finna_Go_HAM) March 23, 2018