No one should have been surprised by Kentucky losing to Indiana on the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. This UK team skated on thin ice all season, as evidenced by a 10-9 record away from Rupp Arena.
As Grant Hill summed up the Cats’ postseason prospects so eloquently, “Kentucky could go far or they could go home.”
Throughout the 2015-16 season, Kentucky produced highly entertaining basketball and, if you were a fan of mystery, induced exciting drama.
Tyler Ulis was arguably the best player, pound for pound, in UK history. Freshman Jamal Murray joined him to form college basketball’s highest scoring backcourt duo this season.
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The frontcourt players? The “bigs” too often came up small.
“Their up-and-down play in the interior has been a nightmare for them,” ESPN’s Dick Vitale said late this season. “The pressure to perform on the perimeter players is unbelievable.”
This pressure did not faze Ulis or Murray.
Ulis became the second player to be named Southeastern Conference Player and Defensive Player of the Year (UK’s Anthony Davis was the first.) On Sunday, Ulis was named one of four finalists for the Naismith Trophy, which the Atlanta Tipoff Club gives to recognize its national player of the year.
Murray became the first Kentucky player to average 20 points in a season since Jodie Meeks in 2008-09, and the first UK freshman ever to do so.
Each was tireless. Ulis’ average of 36.8 minutes was the most by a UK player in at least 35 years. Murray averaged 35.2 minutes, the third-highest by a UK player in John Calipari’s seven seasons as coach (Brandon Knight averaged 35.9 minutes in 2010-11).
But Ulis and Murray were givens. Kentucky’s fate in the postseason rested with players who were wholly unpredictable.
“If our ‘bigs’ don’t play,” Calipari said on Selection Sunday, “we’re not advancing anyway,”
The front line made little impact in Saturday’s second-round loss to Indiana.
The surprise of Kentucky big men under-performing wore off a long time ago. Calipari sounded a warning at SEC Media Days when asked about heralded freshman Skal Labissiere being voted by the media to the all-league team.
“I hope that inspires him because, right now, he’s not playing to that ... ,” Calipari said. “He’s got a lot of stuff to work through.”
Given the string of standout big men Calipari had produced (DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns), that sounded like a typical coach wanting the next heralded freshman to work hard.
Then Duke’s Marshall Plumlee posted a double-double against Kentucky in the season’s fourth game. Calipari had to remove Labissiere from the game after only a few minutes.
“I was flabbergasted, particularly in the first half, how little he knew about being able to block out or when you go help,” former Maryland All-American Len Elmore said. “Because Marshall Plumlee just ate him alive.”
Labissiere’s struggles, which could be attributed to his slender physique and missing his high school junior and senior seasons, were well-chronicled. He seemed to blossom in the regular season’s final week, but a total of 11 points and six rebounds in three SEC Tournament games were not reassuring and served as a prelude to a quiet four-point, five-rebound game against Indiana.
Alex Poythress, who was coming off a torn anterior cruciate ligament the season before, injured his other knee and continued to be sporadically effective. He was 1-for-5 shooting against Indiana. UK went to Poythress in the post early in each half, then tried others.
Marcus Lee, an energy guy, got a chance to post up. The result was a turnover.
It was only a few weeks into the season when various college basketball analysts stressed Kentucky’s need for a post presence.
“You find out how important it is when you don’t have it,” ESPN’s Jay Bilas said.
Without it, Kentucky had one less important tool to use to blunt an opponent’s momentum. So Mississippi State put a scare in the Cats at home, while Auburn and Tennessee rallied from 12- and 21-point second-half deficits to beat UK.
Bilas mentioned another factor. “Teams aren’t afraid,” he said. “They kept plugging and chipping away.”
After Kentucky lost to unranked Ohio State on Dec. 19, Calipari said, “People smell blood. They’ll come after us. That’s just how it is.”
Auburn’s Cinmeon Bowers candidly offered his assessment of a UK team that began the season No. 1 in the coaches’ poll and No. 1 in both major polls as late as the last week of November.
“We’re confident about Kentucky now,” he said before Auburn beat UK in mid-January. “This ain’t like last year. This isn’t the same Kentucky. They’re beatable.”
Calipari and the Cats said much the same thing about it not being fair to compare this Kentucky team — or any team anywhere — with the 2014-15 UK team that won its first 38 games.
To put it in horse racing terms, you might have a champion thoroughbred, but that stallion will look like a nag compared to Secretariat.
Hill, who worked the NCAA games in Des Moines for CBS, said much the same thing. “I think you can get lost in the success from last year,” he said, “and maybe not appreciate how good this team is, and how good they can be.”
Led by — and surely inspired by — Ulis, Kentucky improved enough to share the SEC regular-season championship with Texas A&M, and then beat the Aggies in the league tournament finals.
Ulis’ impact was never more obvious than at South Carolina on Feb. 13. Referee Doug Sirmons ejected Calipari before the game was three minutes old. Associate coach Kenny Payne credited Ulis for running Kentucky’s offense while the staff concentrated on the defense. UK won easily.
More than once, Calipari reminded anyone who would listen of the coaching task he faced. Five players missed games because of injury. UK’s chances of beating Indiana diminished when Derek Willis turned an ankle late in the season. Willis, whose emergence gave UK a third perimeter shooter and thus spread opposing defenses, missed his only two shots.
And, of course, Kentucky had an anything-but-merry go-round in its season-long search for a post presence.
Yet, Kentucky came into the NCAA Tournament with high hopes, in large part because of Calipari’s history of postseason success.
“Cal has really mastered the art of figuring out what each team needs to be successful,” Hill said.
Echoed Vitale, “Cal is a master, as we’ve seen, of the post-season.”
After four Final Four appearances in the last five years, yet another memorable NCAA Tournament run didn’t happen. This season’s margin of error made any shortcoming potentially more costly.
But, given the obstacles overcome, Kentucky 2015-16 can be considered another example of mastering every coach’s desire to get a lot from his team.