John Calipari likes to joke (?) about how you measure a person’s tenure as Kentucky coach in dog years. One season can seem like seven given the stress, the scrutiny, the nothing-too-trivial-to-be-shrugged-off (Malik Monk’s smile at Florida, ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi catching hell from UK fans for moving the Cats from a one-seed to a two IN EARLY DECEMBER).
The woof-woof seemed especially fitting in 2016-17. Collectively and individually, Kentucky played in enough guises to fill multiple seasons. UK played with breathtaking speed (against Arizona State in the Bahamas, in the first North Carolina game). UK failed to get out of its own way (at Tennessee).
Often, this yin and yang occurred in the same game. A 75-50 lead against hapless LSU shrank to 91-85. A 23-6 lead against Final Four-bound South Carolina shrank to 30-27. Perhaps most memorably, a 64-46 lead at Mississippi State shrank to 69-66 (the game-changing play being a technical foul on Monk for needlessly hanging on the rim after a dunk).
Late in the season, Kentucky showed its multiple personalities in the form of slow starts followed by gritty resolve: Down 16-2 and 19-4 at Texas A&M; down 7-0 and 25-6 against Vanderbilt; down 8-0 and 18-6 against Florida. UK won all three games in a dizzying eight-day basketball drama.
It seemed telling that Calipari welcomed the three-seed assigned Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee’s announcement of a preliminary rating of the top 16 teams. Combative Cal did not sound eager to risk a three-seed.
“I said put it in permanent marker,” he said, “because, you know, there are times in the season I’d say we deserve it. There are times maybe we were a little bit better than that. But there have been times, I’d say, really?”
The pace of play was so fast in the first two months that Kentucky began citing “KenPom’s Adjusted Tempo Ranking.” Going into last weekend, UK averaged 15.3 seconds per possession before shooting.
Calipari described the desired offensive style as “pass-pass-pass-pass, in, out, drive, kick, go!”
Former Auburn Coach Sonny Smith said, “If you’re not back on defense, you might as well sack your bats. The game is over.”
Opponents concentrated more and more on getting back on defense and forcing Kentucky to play a half-court game.
Any doubts about the need to improve in a possession-by-possession style surely faded when UK lost three times in four games in late January-early February (at Tennessee, at home to Kansas and at Florida). The lone victory in that span required a clutch jumper by Monk to send a home game against Georgia into overtime.
A week later, Kentucky won at Alabama in a game that featured a comment rarely uttered by an opposing coach.
“I thought this was a very winnable game,” Alabama Coach Avery Johnson said.
A freshman-dependent rotation figured into the inconsistency.
Monk blazed across the sky for much of presumably his one season for Kentucky. His 47 points against North Carolina in Las Vegas set a single-game record for a UK freshman. His 34 points at Ole Miss set a program record for a freshman in a road game. His 30 points in the second half in Rupp Arena against Florida were the most by any Wildcat in a half in Calipari’s time here.
“His light is a little greener than other guys on this team,” assistant coach Tony Barbee said of Monk.
But Monk acknowledged having to learn when to fire away and when to ponder time-and-score considerations. As associate coach Kenny Payne pointed out in Memphis late Friday night, the hesitation allowed defenses to marshal even more attention on Monk. Perhaps that was one reason Monk averaged only — by his standards — 13 points in UK’s final eight games.
Ankle and knee injuries interrupted point guard De’Aaron Fox’s star turn.
Forgetting to get the ball to Bam Adebayo lessened his impact around the basket.
Isaiah Briscoe, the wise old man as a sophomore, steadied Kentucky and set a tone for competitive grit. But his season, too, was not seamless. After UK outlasted Georgia in Athens, Calipari joked that he told Briscoe, “Glad you fouled out. Now, we can try to win this game.”
Experience an edge?
As the season unfolded, a question emerged: Is a freshman-dependent team increasingly vulnerable as it advances deeper in the NCAA Tournament? The caliber of competition will increase. Will an opponent that’s just as talented — but also blessed with greater experience — be at a distinct advantage?
North Carolina, which had four 1,000-point scorers in Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks, Joel Berry II and Justin Jackson, considered itself such a team. After all, the Tar Heels also had Final Four experience, having advanced to last year’s national championship game.
“In difficult situations, we just know what it takes to be able to move on to that next round,” Berry said Saturday.
The final five minutes on Sunday seemed to prove the point. The difference between the teams was not much, so maybe experience got the Tar Heels the victory.
Not that UNC was rock steady. Of the timeout called with 5:03 remaining and Kentucky leading 64-59, “I didn’t like the look on their face, so I started yelling at them,” Tar Heels Coach Roy Williams said. “But I was trying to yell positive messages.”
North Carolina went on a 12-0 run. UK did not wilt. Monk hit a pair of three-pointers, the second tying it at 73 with 7.2 seconds left.
Monk and Fox acknowledged not defending the game’s final possession correctly. Left open, UNC’s Luke Maye made the game-winning shot.
After Kentucky lost to West Virginia in the 2010 Elite Eight, Calipari said he needed to find the missing ingredient to get a freshman-dependent team past more experienced teams deep in an NCAA Tournament.
Fox, who spoke as he fought back tears in the postgame locker room, did not feel Kentucky had a telling handicap.
“We proved a lot of people wrong,” he said. “We left stuff on the table. But, like I said, North Carolina is great. I wish them the best.”
Some UK fans might question building a team on a foundation of one-and-done players. That same formula got Kentucky to four Final Fours in a five-year period, plus two other Elite Eight games in Calipari’s eight seasons. And, of course, UK won the 2012 national championship.
Former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese, whom the Southeastern Conference hired as a consultant, acknowledged that there is a hump that freshman-dependent teams must overcome.
“It’s a hard hump to get over,” Tranghese said. “But, you know what, it’s fun trying because you’re going for a national championship.
“You know, it beats trying to rebuild all the time.”