John Clay

Has Kentucky basketball taken a step backward?

John Calipari’s first six seasons were off the chain. Five Elite Eight appearances. Four Final Fours. A national championship. There was so much success so soon, the bar was set impossibly high.

So has Kentucky basketball taken a step backward since?

Why yes, but then what did you expect?

Thursday night’s 61-58 loss to Kansas State in a South Region semifinal of the NCAA Tournament was the third time in the last four years Kentucky has lost to an equal or lower seed.

In 2015, as the tournament’s overall No. 1 seed, carrying a 38-0 record to the Final Four, Calipari’s club painfully committed three straight shot clock violations and lost to fellow No. 1 seed Wisconsin 71-64 in the national semifinals.

In 2016, the fourth-seeded Cats lost to No. 5 seed Indiana in the second round. In 2017, as a No. 2 seed, Kentucky lost to No. 1 seed and eventual champ North Carolina in the Elite Eight. And now, in 2018, as a No. 5 seed, the Cats were bounced by a No. 9 seed, Bruce Weber’s Wildcats from the Big 12.

Bottom line: A golden opportunity wasted. A busted bracket had eased UK’s path, the Cats being the highest-seeded team in a regional that also included No. 7 seed Nevada and No. 11 seed Loyola Chicago. The way to San Antonio seemed clear.

But there was something Calipari said before Kentucky’s first NCAA Tournament game out in Boise, Idaho. Calipari called Davidson an experienced team, an execution team. Kentucky was an inexperienced team, said the coach, and not an execution team.

Kansas State made Thursday night an execution game. K-State slowed the pace. It clogged the lane, shutting off Kentucky point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s sweet spot. And when UK’s best player did reach the crowded paint, he often panicked and made poor decisions.

“I didn’t play well,” said the freshman, who committed five turnovers. “Give (Kansas State) credit.”

Calipari didn’t help the cause. Late in the Feb. 6 home game versus Tennessee, the coach elected not to use a timeout and the Cats bungled their way to a 62-60 loss. The coach took the blame. Thursday, he went the same route and got the same result.

After Kansas State’s Barry Brown Jr. put Kansas State up 60-58 with 19 seconds left, Kentucky hustled up the floor and apparently tried to run a play for Kevin Knox. When that didn’t develop, Quade Green rushed up a three-pointer that missed the rim.

“I should have called that timeout with 19 seconds to go,” Calipari said, “but we had worked on something and I thought we could catch them off guard.”

Calipari did call time after Kansas State’s Amaad Wainwright made one of two free throws with 7.7 seconds left, but again UK failed to execute. Wenyen Gabriel was supposed to pop free at the top of the key. When that didn’t happen, Gilgeous-Alexander’s awkward three missed off the glass.

So in the end, Kentucky was not so much that team that had won nine of its last 10 as the team that lost 11 games on the season. It was what it showed us it was, a team that went 10-8 in a conference that did not reach a regional finals.

What will it be next year? At this point, who knows. We’ve entered the annual in-limbo phase of being a Kentucky basketball fan. Which players will take a stab at that NBA Draft dream on June 21? Who will stay? Who will go? It’s the blessing and curse of Calipari.

In a perfect world, all seven of UK’s freshmen return for their sophomore seasons. They’re not ready for the NBA. But that’s not how this works, of course. The hunch here is Knox, Gilgeous-Alexander and Hamidou Diallo go while the rest stay. The status of the often-injured Jarred Vanderbilt remains a mystery.

With regards to the program, there is no mystery. Even Kentucky basketball under Calipari must eventually bow to the law of averages, to the statistical principle of a “regression to the mean.” Only four teams out of 351 make the Final Four. Only one wins a national title. Staying on top is much harder than getting there.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader