Kentucky fumbles away golden opportunity to reach Final Four

The Dagger

ATLANTA — The road to the Final Four stretched wide open before Kentucky, and the Wildcats stepped on their own tails.

Kentucky coach John Calipari spent much of Wednesday railing against the “poison” of lofty expectations for his team, despite the fact that they were the highest seed in the most ravaged bracket in NCAA tournament history. Everyone in Big Blue Nation knew – hell, they’d seen with their own eyes, just a few days before – what can happen in March. But knowing and understanding are two very different things, and Kentucky – and its fans – aren’t much for measured, cautious perspective.

So when Kentucky lost to Kansas State 61-58 in a game that shouldn’t have been anywhere near that close, it wasn’t hard to pick out what went wrong. Erratic shooting, poor execution, lackluster defense … you name it, Kentucky did it.

If you want an ill pregame omen, here’s one for you: As the waning seconds of Loyola-Nevada (the regional game prior to Kentucky’s) wound down, Kentucky fans perched, vulture-esque, at the tops of staircases around Philips Arena’s Section 116, the concentrated heart of Nevada fans.

“Who’s got stubs they want to sell?” one Kentucky fan called out. Others plunged straight into the sad morass of Wolf Pack fans, cold-bloodedly holding up two fingers, ready to pluck the last remaining meat from Nevada’s bones.

The implication was obvious: Of course Kentucky would be back here Saturday night for a routine regional coronation; that’s what Kentucky does, by God. They believed it; you believed it; everybody outside of Manhattan, Kansas believed it.

With all due credit to Kansas State – survive and advance, survive and advance – Kentucky had absolutely no excuses for losing this game. Kentucky has 57 tournament appearances, 17 Final Fours, and eight championships to K-State’s 29, four and zero. The SEC-based fanbase in Philips Arena outnumbered the Big 12 one by a factor of at least four. Blue stepped onto the court bigger, taller, and faster than Purple.

And then the ball was tipped, to coin a phrase, and all those numbers vaporized.

Kansas State leaped out to a 7-0 lead, then a 13-1 lead, and Calipari called a timeout. All around him, blue-clad fans sat, arms folded, disgusted at what they were seeing but certain this would all turn around quickly.

“There’s a whole game left!” Calipari told his team, and he was right. Kentucky remembered that it was, you know, Kentucky, and as Calipari noted after the game, went on to win the rest of the half by seven points.

Which would be great if this were, say, figure skating and judges awarded style points. But after this kind of debacle – there’s no other word for it, from the Kentucky perspective – you parse the box score however you can to tilt it in your favor.

Kentucky had every possible advantage and couldn’t hold down Kansas State. (Getty)
Kentucky had every possible advantage and couldn’t hold down Kansas State. (Getty)

Unfortunately for Kentucky, the numbers don’t lie, and those numbers show that Kentucky squandered every possible advantage it had:

• Kentucky out-rebounded K-State 38-29, but totaled only three 3-pointers, a third of Kansas State’s total. Matter of fact, Kansas State shot a flat-out vile 19 of 54 from the field and still won. Ugly doesn’t win unless it’s playing even more ugly.

• Referees assessed 30 fouls on K-State against 21 on Kentucky, and when you’re running the kind of tight rotation that Kansas State was, there’s not much room to distribute those 30 fouls. By the end of the game, K-State was effectively down to five players – Lord only knows what would have happened had the game gone into overtime – with, most notably, Xavier Sneed’s 22 points on the bench.

• P.J. Washington had the kind of triple-double you don’t want — 18 points, 15 rebounds, 12 missed free throws. Kentucky as a whole was 23 of 37 from the line; take off Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s total, and Kentucky was a miserable 12 of 25.

Kansas State punched Kentucky in the mouth, and Kentucky flailed in response. It’s that simple. Bluegrass State fans will spend the next seven months dissecting why that might be – Did this team give up? Was this team too young? Was this a bad night, or a symptom of something worse? – but the simple fact remains that on the most basic, fundamental level, Kentucky didn’t step up when it had the chance. This was a team that needed to score in bunches to win – Kentucky finished the year 2-9 in games in which it scored fewer than 70 points – and couldn’t adjust when the easy buckets weren’t there.

“They was playing more aggressive,” freshman guard Quade Green said. “They were on the ball way more than we was.”

“It was a physical game,” Calipari said. “And it kind of got us a little out of rhythm, and it wears you down.”

Missed assignments, missed rotations, shots ringing off the front iron, cheap turnovers … each chipped away a little piece of Kentucky’s hopes.

“All the little things added up,” Kansas State coach Bruce Weber said, viewing those stats from a very different angle. “That’s how you get a victory. Not by one thing or this thing, but all the little things that add up.”

After the game, the lines in his face deep, the frustration in his eyes evident, Calipari tried to put a positive spin on the year. “Both individually and collectively, this was a rewarding year for me. I wish it could have ended in another week,” he said. “For me to see how individual players got better, for me to see how this team came together … [the team] hung in there and played, a bunch of freshmen.”

That’s all well and good, and yes, from a team perspective, the 2017-18 Wildcats have bonds that will last the rest of their lives. But it’s impossible to see what happened Thursday night – and what will happen Saturday night, when, for the first time in tournament history, a nine-seed plays an 11-seed for the right to go to the Final Four – and not think about what could have been, what should have been, for Kentucky.

“It just hurts right now, because I feel like we definitely could have won that game,” Washington said in the locker room afterward. “I felt like we let it slip away.”

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.

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