UK Men's Basketball

Youngest team ever gave UK basketball fans the most compelling drama ever

The Kentucky Wildcats celebrated after defeating the Tennessee Volunteers in the the SEC Tournament championship game in St. Louis.
The Kentucky Wildcats celebrated after defeating the Tennessee Volunteers in the the SEC Tournament championship game in St. Louis.

One thing for sure about Kentucky’s 2017-18 season: It wasn’t boring.

Arguably the least experienced team in college basketball history was undeniably one of the most entertaining. Individually and collectively, sometimes from television timeout to television timeout, it was impossible to predict what might happen. This made for compelling basketball drama.

Highs: Most lopsided victory over Louisville since 1999, which made good on Quade Green’s promise of a Christmas present for UK fans. Winning at West Virginia despite trailing by 15 points at halftime. An inspiring run to the Southeastern Conference Tournament championship.

Lows: First four-game losing streak since 2009. Dispiriting loss to UCLA. (And at least for fans) the streak of making at least one three-point shot ending after 30 years and 1,047 games.

Just plain strange: Non-calls in the final seconds that helped in a home victory against Texas A&M and hurt in a home loss to Florida. A Fort Wayne player flopping in the apparent hope of drawing a charge on UK Coach John Calipari.

Hard to explain: One of the Southeastern Conference’s best free throw shooters, Riley LaChance, missing clutch free throws that helped UK beat Vanderbilt twice.

Kentucky freshman Shai Gilgeous-Alexander reacted after missing the final shot of the game in the Cats’ Sweet 16 loss to Kansas State. Alex Slitz

After Kansas State eliminated Kentucky from the NCAA Tournament on Thursday, Sacha Killeya-Jones tried to capture it all.

Of what he’d remember about the 2017-18 season, he said, “How much we came together and how much we’ve been through. And what people told us we were and weren’t. Just how we came together as brothers and proved a lot of people wrong.

“I’m really going to miss this team, for sure.”

The season ended with a fitting punctuation: winning or losing decided in a four-minute stretch. That happened repeatedly this season, which kept fans on the edge of their seats. But the margin for error was tiny for what was essentially a freshman team prone to make mistakes.

After Kentucky lost 61-58 to Kansas State in a NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 game Thursday, leading scorer Kevin Knox captured the precarious nature of having to survive and advance by winning four-minute games. After all, only a week earlier, UK barely got past Davidson in a first-round game in which it led by two points inside the final three minutes.

“We prepare in practice for times like this,” Knox said. “Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.”

The over-riding theme of Kentucky’s season revolved around inexperience. Stats addict Ken Pomeroy said UK was the least experienced team in Division I this season, or any of the 12 seasons he’s measured experience.

Even with his proven track record of transforming a collection of heralded recruits into effective units, Calipari cautioned against assuming this process would be easy or a matter of routine. He likened it to getting a root canal. Not matter how often you go through the procedure, it’s still painful.

Hence this tweet from Calipari on Oct. 16: “I love coaching young players who want to be coached. But, boy, do we have a long ways to go.”

Ten days later, perhaps in an attempt to temper enthusiasm, Calipari was “not sure we can beat a top 50 RPI team.” Kentucky finished with a record of 9-9 against top 50 RPI teams.

Calipari spent much of the season trying to walk an emotional tightrope. He did not seem to want players and fans to overreact to short-term success or failure.

Maybe this was behind a tweet four days after an encouraging December victory over Virginia Tech that quoted John Wooden: When success turns your head, you face failure. Calipari cited “unwarranted arrogance” as a factor in a January loss at South Carolina.

But Calipari also tried to shield his players. After a home loss to Tennessee, and then again after being eliminated by Kansas State, he second-guessed decisions not to call timeouts to set up a play.

Repeatedly, Calipari told fans to focus their disappointment at him, not the players.

Yet, Calipari held his players accountable. In a memorable turn of phrase, he said after the loss at Tennessee that the Cats had been “manhandled by men.” And of a 76-66 loss at Auburn that culminated the four-game losing streak, he said, “we made some dumb, inexperienced plays down the stretch.”

Kentucky only lost twice more the rest of the season. Calipari and players spoke of roles being defined and accepted. Greater consistency ensued.

After UK beat Buffalo to advance to the Sweet 16, Calipari termed it his “most rewarding season” as a coach.

He still thought so after being eliminated by Kansas State.

“Both individually and collectively, this was a rewarding year for me,” he said. “I wish it could have ended in another week.”

In a series of follow-up tweets Friday, Calipari saluted the UK players’ efforts.

“Each of these kids gave everything they had …,” he tweeted. “As a coach and as a fan, all you can ask is that they give their very best and that they do it as a team. This team tried to do that all year.”

Peaks and valleys remained till the end. Jarred Vanderbilt, who provided a spark after a belated debut at South Carolina on Jan. 16, missed the entire post-season because of a lower leg injury.

Against Kansas State, PJ Washington personified the highs and lows of Kentucky’s season. His double-double, which included a career-high 15 rebounds, kept UK in the game. But he made only eight of 20 free-throw shots, which doomed the Cats to defeat.

“I learned a lot this year …,” he said after the game. “This is one of my favorite years of my whole life. Just being here at Lexington, Ky., with all our guys made me better. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton

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