Mark Story

Who’s up, who’s down after a wild season of Kentucky college basketball

Kentucky’s Reid Travis: ‘This has been one of the best years of my life playing basketball’

Kentucky Wildcats senior forward Reid Travis spoke to the media about his emotions following the final game of his career, a 77-71 loss in overtime to the Auburn Tigers on Sunday, March 31, 2019, in the Elite Eight of the 2019 NCAA Tournament.
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Kentucky Wildcats senior forward Reid Travis spoke to the media about his emotions following the final game of his career, a 77-71 loss in overtime to the Auburn Tigers on Sunday, March 31, 2019, in the Elite Eight of the 2019 NCAA Tournament.

On the plus side, the 2018-19 men’s college basketball season in Kentucky saw both an unusual bounty of star power and the commonwealth placing four teams in the NCAA Tournament.

On the debit side, the state of Kentucky sent only one team past the NCAA tourney’s first weekend and no team to the Final Four.

After a memorable, if ultimately unsatisfying, year of Kentucky men’s college hoops, this is who is up and who is down:

Up: Murray State’s point guard tree. Ja Morant was the breakout story in Kentucky college basketball in 2018-19.

The 6-foot-3, 175-pound sophomore from Dalzell, S.C., averaged a double-double (24.5 points, 10 assists) and went from national curiosity to First-Team AP All-American while leading the Racers (28-5) to the NCAA Tournament round of 32.

Temetrius “Ja” Morant is the best college basketball player in Kentucky. Morant can flat-out rock a rim. But it’s his vision and nose for the ball, paired with his hops, that positioned Morant to be the 1st point guard taken in the next NBA Draft.

Morant, a lock to go in the top five of the 2019 NBA Draft, will follow two-time OVC Player of the Year Isaiah Canaan (2009-2013) and 2014-15 OVC Player of the Year Cameron Payne (2013-15) as Murray State point guards this decade to make it to the NBA.

Down: Eastern Kentucky postseason drought. After Nick Mayo produced career totals of 2,316 points and 833 rebounds, the 6-9, 250-pound product of Lewiston, Maine, leaves EKU as, arguably, the best player player in school history.

Yet, not only did EKU never get Mayo to an NCAA Tournament, Eastern (13-18) did not even make the OVC tourney once over his four-year Colonels’ career.

Nick Mayo.JPG
When Eastern Kentucky star Nick Mayo (10) scored 40 points in the Colonels’ 81-78 win at Chattanooga Nov. 10, he became the first Colonels player since 2001 to score 40 points in a men’s basketball game. Lexington Herald-Leader file photo

Up: Star players. It would seem unfair to pick a five-man “All-State Team” from Kentucky men’s college basketball in 2018-19 because the commonwealth boasted more than five genuine stars.

In addition to Morant and Mayo, Kentucky forward PJ Washington (15.2 points, 7.6 rebounds); Louisville forward Jordan Nwora (17.0 points, 7.6 rebounds); Western Kentucky center Charles Bassey (14.6 points, 10.0 rebounds, 62.7 field-goal percentage); and Northern Kentucky forward Drew McDonald (18.7 points, 9.4 rebounds) all produced star-caliber seasons.

Drew McDonald
Northern Kentucky forward Drew McDonald (34) ended his Norse career with 2,066 points and 1,081 rebounds. Nick Hammonds

Down: Western Kentucky inconsistency. Led by freshman big man Bassey and Lexington product Taveion Hollingsworth, the perception was that Rick Stansbury and WKU had the most talented roster in Conference USA.

At times, the Hilltoppers played like it. Western scored victories over Wisconsin, West Virginia and at Arkansas as well as beating the Saint Mary’s team that upset then-No. 1 Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference Tournament finals.

Conversely, WKU (20-14) lost to Troy (12-18), Indiana State (15-16) and Missouri State (16-16).

Leading to the most frustration, Western fell in the finals of the C-USA Tournament for the second straight season. The 62-56 loss to Old Dominion meant WKU has still not played in an NCAA tourney since 2013.

Rick Stansbury
Rick Stansbury, center, is 62-42 in three seasons as Western Kentucky men’s basketball coach. Lexington Herald-Leader file photo

Up: Graduate transfers. Kentucky’s John Calipari enjoyed coaching Reid Travis (11.2 points, 7.2 rebounds) so much, he all but waxed poetic about the Stanford graduate transfer.

Meanwhile, Samford grad transfer Christen Cunningham, the former Henry Clay High School star, was a life-saver for Louisville at point guard (10.1 points, 4.8 assists).

AP_18328096783051.jpg
Former Henry Clay Blue Devils standout Christen Cunningham, a graduate transfer from Samford, provided Louisville with stability at point guard. Adam Hunger AP

Down: UK pressure foul shooting. Boosted by Tyler Herro’s otherworldly accuracy (93.5% for the season), the 2018-19 Kentucky Wildcats were the best foul-shooting team (73.9%) of the John Calipari era.

That made it doubly frustrating when the Cats went 12-of-21 from the free-throw line in the 77-71 overtime loss to Auburn that ended Kentucky’s season in the NCAA tourney’s Elite Eight.

It is the sixth time in Calipari’s eight NCAA Tournament defeats as Kentucky head coach that errant foul shooting played a major role in the demise of a Wildcats season.

Up: Chris Mack’s first three months of the 2018-19 season. By the end of January, new Louisville head man Mack had led U of L to a 16-5 record with wins over Michigan State and at both Seton Hall and North Carolina.

Mack’s six-man signing class in the November period had also been widely praised by recruiting analysts as one of the nation’s best, too.

Mack and Calipari
Chris Mack, right, dropped his first game as Louisville head coach against Kentucky and John Calipari 71-58 on Dec. 29 in the KFC Yum Center. Mark Mahan

Down: Chris Mack’s final two months of the 2018-19 season. From Feb. 1 to the season’s end, Mack and U of L went 4-9. Given the difficulty of Louisville’s February schedule, late-season struggles were not unanticipated — but the way the Cards lost was exasperating.

U of L blew a 10-point lead in the final 10 minutes of regulation and lost in overtime at Florida State. Stunningly, the Cardinals were up 23 points on Duke with 9:58 left — only to melt down in spectacular fashion and lose by two.

Capping the frustration, Mack and U of L lost their NCAA Tournament opener to Minnesota and a head coach, Richard Pitino, whose family name made that defeat vexing for many Cards fans.

Overall, Mack’s initial season at U of L should be regarded as a success — but the finish undid some of the feel-good vibes from the beginning.

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Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a H-L sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.

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