For the second straight season, Kentucky’s bracket appeared to set up perfectly for the Wildcats to reach the Final Four.
Just like last March, they failed to take advantage.
Second-seeded Kentucky’s 77-71 overtime loss to shorthanded Auburn on Sunday evening will be remembered as an opportunity squandered. Only two days earlier, the Tigers lost their best interior scorer, rebounder and defender, Chuma Okeke, to a torn ACL in his left knee.
It’s worth noting that Auburn (30-9) has elevated its level of play during the past five weeks, reeling off 11 straight victories including upsets of Tennessee, Kansas and North Carolina. It’s also worth noting that Bruce Pearl is a motivational mastermind who shrewdly used Okeke’s injury to inspire the rest of the Tigers.
Even so, catching a No. 5 seed without its best big man was clearly preferable to drawing Auburn at full strength or the top-seeded North Carolina team the Tigers upset in the Sweet 16. Without Okeke, Auburn had no interior player capable of containing Kentucky’s P.J. Washington, who overpowered every defender thrown at him en route to 28 points and 13 rebounds.
That Kentucky lost anyway speaks to how decisively Auburn won Sunday’s battle in the backcourt.
Auburn’s top two guards combined for 50 points, Bryce Brown propelling the Tigers back from a five-point halftime deficit and then Jared Harper taking over down the stretch and in overtime after Kentucky began doubling his teammate. Neither Ashton Hagans nor Tyler Herro could stay in front of Harper or consistently get a hand in Brown’s face.
Hagans and Herro didn’t do much to help Kentucky at the other end of the floor either. Both guards played like freshmen, Hagans committing seven turnovers and Herro sinking only 3 of 11 shots and vanishing for long stretches of the second half and overtime.
Asked after the game why Immanuel Quickley didn’t see more than 19 minutes with Hagans and Herro struggling, Calipari correctly noted that Quickley “couldn’t make a shot” either. Quickley went 1-for-6 from the field, all on 3-point attempts.
“You've got to have better perimeter play and we have all year until today,” Calipari said. “Now, I'm going to give credit to Auburn. I'm not saying that's why we lost. They made us play the way we did.”
Frustrating as Sunday’s loss surely was for Kentucky, it doesn’t compare to the opportunity the Wildcats let slip through their fingers last March. They had a chance to reach the Final Four without facing an opponent seeded eighth or better, but they fell in the Sweet 16 to a ninth-seeded Kansas State team playing without forward Dean Wade.
Thanks to the Kansas State loss last March and Auburn’s upset on Sunday, Kentucky’s Final Four drought has now reached four years. Prior to 2016, the Wildcats had reached the Final Four a remarkable four times in six seasons under Calipari, perhaps giving the false impression that making annual deep runs in a single-elimination tournament is easy.
While Calipari deserves some criticism on Sunday for leaving multiple timeouts on the board and for not making more adjustments down the stretch, it’s worth noting that this season has been one of his best coaching jobs overall.
A freshman-laden Kentucky team with zero top-10 picks on its roster had its doors blown off against Duke in the season opener and suffered confidence-shaking losses to Seton Hall and Alabama over the next two months. Calipari and his staff held things together, developed Washington into a star and coaxed significant improvement out of Herro and Hagans, helping the Wildcats win 30 games and contend for the SEC title.
Was this Kentucky season a huge success? No. But it wasn’t a failure either.
It was a solid year for the Wildcats that ended with a second straight missed opportunity.
“I thought we were going to win the game the whole way until the one or two plays in overtime,” Calipari said. “Never entered my mind we weren't going to win the game. Proud of these guys. Proud of my team. We didn't play particularly well, but give them credit for making us play poorly.”
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