“They are who we thought they were!”
Dennis Green made that phrase famous when talking about the Chicago Bears. Saturday night it applied to the Kentucky Wildcats.
They are who we thought they were: the best backcourt in the nation with an inconsistent supporting cast. And that’s not good enough to make the Sweet 16. Can any Big Blue fan really be that surprised?
UK was a fundamentally flawed team this year, and I spent the entire season pointing it out. Some UK fans got tired of hearing it, but the Wildcats were simply never as good as the Big Blue Nation (and some fawning media) wanted them to be. They won a bunch of home games against weak competition but were completely mediocre on the road and had beaten only one good team in months. The only reason to consider them a Final Four threat was the incredible postseason record of John Calipari. Even I got seduced by his history of transforming generic regular seasons into Big Dance magic. But in the end, Cal’s golden touch couldn’t make this group shine.
But first things first: Let’s give credit to UK’s big two. Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray were so ridiculously consistent this year that we began to take their greatness for granted. I got tired of saying “UK needs those two to play their ‘A’ game to win” because they played their “A” game every time. It was as if they were impervious to the stress they had to feel. They were required to carry the team every night, and they did it every night. They were great college basketball players and it got to the point that you couldn’t imagine anything else.
Indiana didn’t find a way to shut them down. The Hoosiers simply got them from their “A” game to “A-” or “B+.” Or maybe it was the refs calling early offensive fouls that got in their heads (although I think those calls were legit). While Ulis poured in 27 points, he had uncharacteristic turnover issues and defensive lapses. He had fewer than four assists in a game for the first time since November and no rebounds for only the third time all year. Meanwhile, Murray went 1-9 from three and 3-for-16 from beyond the arc over two games. While both were still very good, they weren’t great. And with no one else able to step up, that was the ballgame. I said after the Kansas loss that the pressure on them to be perfect would ultimately be too much, and it turned out to be true.
So what happened to the rest of the team? That’s the $64,000 question. We all know the biggest key to UK’s win streak in the latter half of the season was Calipari’s decision to insert Derek Willis into the lineup. Willis’ outside shooting threat became a critical component of the Wildcat offense, changing the entire attack. Kentucky entered the NCAA Tournament as the most efficient offense in college basketball, and it was heart-warming to see a local kid bide his time and become so important. Unfortunately, Willis disappeared in Des Moines, taking only two shots in 15 minutes. If you told me before the game that Willis would go scoreless, I would’ve immediately said that UK lost. He was that crucial.
And then there’s the UK frontcourt. Unfortunately for Cats fans, the performance we saw this weekend was eerily familiar. They simply lacked toughness. Great kids, skilled kids, but unable to rise to the occasion. Frontcourt depth was a concern for the Cats before they started the year and it remained one throughout. It was the one thing that Cal couldn’t seem to fix, the one button he couldn’t push.
So UK’s second-worst season of the Calipari Era ends with a 27-9 record and an SEC Tournament championship. Not too shabby. But not nearly good enough for a team that was pre-season No. 1 in the coach’s poll. They’ll probably be ranked in the low teens when it’s all said and done and that’s about what they were, a borderline top 20 team that feasted on scrubs in a pathetic league.
To me that’s a disappointment for the self-proclaimed “gold standard” of college basketball, but most Cat fans I’ve seen on social media seem to be OK with it. I think that acceptance comes from knowing deep down that they weren’t really a contender plus the fact that many are already looking ahead. The best thing about Calipari and his recruiting mojo is that the phrase “Wait ‘til next year!” is always legit. Hope doesn’t just spring eternal in Lexington, it gushes like a geyser.
Ken Pomeroy’s statistical model already ranks Kentucky as the preseason No. 2 for next year. But you know who he has No. 1? Louisville! Ahhhh can we just fast forward to next season? It should be a blast.
But you know who doesn’t want to fast-forward? Indiana. They’re enjoying the precious present very much. And as much as I’ve patted myself on the back in this column for accurately identifying UK’s issues throughout the year, I’ve got to acknowledge my big swing and a miss on the Hoosiers. I simply refused to believe. Despite the Big 10 title, despite the gaudy offensive numbers, despite the stellar play of Yogi Ferrell and the development of Thomas Bryant and OG Anunoby, I refused to buy in. But it’s time to acknowledge that this is a quality basketball team. They’re balanced and unselfish on offense and remarkably fun to watch. While they too have flaws: carelessness, wavering defensive intensity, occasional rebounding issues — they overcome them with so many potential scoring options that it’s difficult to hold them all down.
Whether the Hoosiers are able to overcome North Carolina or not, IU basketball is back. And that makes the hoops hotbed of Kentucky and Indiana an even better place to live. Congrats to the Cream and Crimson.
Follow the author on Twitter at @Lach3.