Three takeaways from Kentucky’s 61-58 loss to Kansas State in the South Region semifinals of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament:
1. A golden opportunity wasted.
It was all set up for them. The yellow brick road to the Final Four. Even at No. 5, Kentucky was the highest seeded team coming into the South Region, what with Nevada at No. 7, Kansas State at No. 9 and Loyola of Chicago at No. 11.
Maybe, as head coach John Calipari warned against on Wednesday, Kentucky drank the poison of listening or reading we so-called experts who said that the Cats had a clear path to San Antonio. Or maybe this team just wasn’t an Elite Eight team, much less a Final Four team.
Either way, it had more than enough chances Thursday night. It shot just 26.1 percent the first half and trailed K-State by only four points, 33-29, at the break. It missed 14 of 37 free throws, with PJ Washington missing 12 of his 20 attempts.
It led 55-54 with 4:02 left and 57-56 with 1:32 remaining. After a 58-58 tie with 1:14 remaining, it had two final chances to either win the game or send it to overtime and failed to execute on either.
After Kansas State’s Barry Brown, Jr. scored on a drive with 18 seconds left to put Bruce Weber’s Wildcats up 60-58, Calipari elected not to call time out — the same strategy that backfired in the home loss to Tennessee — and instead the Cats got bogged down in a broken play that ended up with guard Quade Green shooting an airball.
Then after Kansas State’s Amaad Wainwright made one of two free throws with 7.7 seconds left, UK had another chance. This time, Calipari called timeout. Turned out, it didn’t make any difference. A play that was supposed to pop Wenyen Gabriel open at the top of the key for a three-pointer never developed. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander hurried up a three-pointer from the right wing that hit the glass then bounced harmlessly off the rim. Game over.
If Kentucky had triumphed Thursday and again on Saturday in the regional final, plenty would have pointed to the fact these Cats would have reached the Final Four by beating seeds 12, 13, 9 and 11. No non-No. 1 seed has ever had an easier path.
Doesn’t matter. Years from now, when they look in the record books, they would have paid attention to the fact UK reached another Final Four, Calipari’s fifth in nine seasons in Lexington, not who the Cats beat to get there.
It was almost like a gift for a team that was playing its best basketball at the end of the year, but reverted and wasted the opportunity. The ones you remember are the ones that got away.
2. Kansas State did a great job on Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
Kentucky’s freshman point guard had been the team’s best and most important player. He was voted MVP when the Cats took the SEC Tournament. He played well last week in Boise, scoring 27 points in UK’s 20-point rout of Buffalo in the second round.
So often this year, Kentucky played as well as Gilgeous-Alexander played. When the Cats followed a four-game losing streak with a four-game win streak, the Canada native was the catalyst, taking over the role as leader of the team. And when Kentucky lost the season finale at Florida 80-67, Gilgeous-Alexander did not play well. Neither did his team.
Same thing happened Thursday. Kansas State was as effective as any opponent this season of keeping Gilgeous-Alexander out of the lane, the freshman’s go-to move, or making it difficult when he was able to get in the paint.
“Definitely,” he said afterward. “They did a really good job there in the second half of keeping me out of the paint and stuff. They just played really physical and really good defensively in the second half.”
And though Gilgeous-Alexander made 11 of 12 free throws, he was just two-of-10 from the floor. His five assists were matched by five turnovers. As a team, Kentucky was credited with six assists, compared to 15 turnovers.
Kentucky shot 38.1 percent for the game, its lowest percentage since shooting 31.3 percent in a 69-60 loss at Missouri on Feb. 3. And Kansas State and Missouri play similar styles. Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin played for Gene Keady at Purdue, where Weber was Keady’s assistant.
And Kentucky’s assist-to-turnover ratio of minus-9 was its worst since producing just eight assists against 17 turnovers in the loss at South Carolina, another team that used a physical, hard-nosed style of play. And Kentucky played at the pace Kansas State wanted to play, not at the pace UK wanted to play.
3. And now, decision time.
The old adage about water seeking its own level probably applies to this young, inconsistent Kentucky team, one that started five freshmen and was the youngest ever for a coach who has had nothing but young teams at Kentucky.
Just a month ago, the Cats were 17-9 overall and 6-7 in the SEC. They had trouble scoring. They were turning the ball over. They were breaking down on defense. They were still making freshmen mistakes. Sliding off the NCAA bubble into the NIT was a real possibility.
They found a way to turn it around, winning four of their last five in the regular season, sweeping the SEC Tournament, then winning the first two games of the NCAA Tournament. They had won nine of their last 10 heading into Thursday night.
The road ended there, however. Flaws were exposed. Youth was exposed. And it all led us back to what we thought back in January, that this was a team less skilled than some of Calipari’s previous teams, with more holes and more youth. It looked like the makings of a team with a Sweet 16 appearance as its ceiling and that turned out to be the case.
Next come the decisions. The post-game guess here is that Kevin Knox, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Hamidou Diallo all enter the NBA Draft and stay there. PJ Washington is a tougher guess. And who knows what Jarred Vanderbilt will do considering he missed the entire post-season with an injured ankle after missing most of the season with an injured foot. His whole situation remains a mystery.
Right now, anyway, it does not appear that Calipari’s next team will be as young as this season’s, but he certainly has holes to fill. The future is uncertain. After reaching the Final Four a ridiculous four times in his first six seasons, Calipari’s teams have now lost in the Round of 32, the Elite Eight and the Sweet 16.
Kentucky men’s basketball 2017-18
vsMonmouth (New York)
vsUCLA (New Orleans)
vsKansas State (NCAA)