John Calipari built perennial contenders at Kentucky with the very best amateur basketball players in America. He shunned experience for one-and-dones. He took in high school All-Americans and churned out NBA lottery picks. He won championships and hundreds of games along the way. In 2021, he changed his approach, but, backed by a $20 million budget and reams of history, he built a new-look Goliath.
In 2022, though, on Thursday in Indianapolis, it fell to a tiny Jesuit school with a men's basketball budget that couldn't even pay a quarter of Calipari's salary.
Kentucky — big, bad Kentucky — succumbed to No. 15 seed Saint Peter's in an opening-round men's NCAA tournament game that few thought would even be worth watching. The Peacocks, led by a coach making less than four Kentucky assistants, stunned one of college basketball's bluest blue bloods in overtime, 85-79.
They dealt Calipari his first first-round tournament loss at Kentucky.
They danced, and jumped joyously, and sent one of college basketball's most dominant players back to a somber locker room in tears.
Back in Jersey City, New Jersey, their classmates — some of the school's 2,134 undergrads — screamed and bounded around an auditorium, all ecstatic, celebrating an indelible moment.
— Yahoo Sports (@YahooSports) March 18, 2022
Their coach, Shaheen Holloway, who'd watched the tensest moments of the upset stoically, with arms crossed, was asked if at any point he'd been nervous.
"Nah," he said. "For what? It's basketball."
It was brilliant basketball and ugly basketball and dramatic basketball all at once. Oscar Tshiebwe, Kentucky's superstar center, scored 30 points and reeled in 16 rebounds, and did everything he could to power the oldest Kentucky team in six decades to the second round.
But his teammates flopped and flailed on the offensive end, making only a third of their field goal attempts. They made only four 3-pointers, and Calipari said that three times, he removed players from the game "because they wouldn’t shoot the ball.”
At the other end, Saint Peter's guard Daryl Banks III scored 27 heroic points to lead the Peacocks.
"You had 27?" a teammate asked him after seeing a stat sheet. "You're a baaad boy."
His fellow junior guard Doug Edert gave Saint Peter's a stunning lead with just over a minute remaining in regulation. Kentucky's Kellan Grady, who'd been ice cold all month, answered with a second-chance 3. Edert responded, and sent the game to overtime with a runner.
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) March 18, 2022
Edert, an eephus-throwing, coffee-chugging mustachioed gym rat, stayed clutch in overtime. After an early Kentucky spurt, he hit another 3 to tie the game at 75.
The Wildcats continued to sputter, allowing Saint Peter's to take a five-point lead with 30 seconds to go, and never recovered.
Their shooting struggles had not been the story of their season, but became the story of their March flop. "This was an unbelievable group," Calipari said postgame, one that led the SEC in 3-point percentage. "Just picked a bad day to not make a shot," he continued.
Or, rather, a bad month. The Wildcats were 2-of-20 from deep in their SEC tournament loss to Tennessee. They followed that up with a 4-for-15 effort on Thursday, and Grady, typically their chief marksman, knew that's what cost them the game.
"If I bang a couple, if I was myself the last couple games, we probably would've won them," he said. "I shot like crap again tonight."
He wiped his eye. His cheeks were red. He'd searched for an explanation, a reason for his struggles, and he couldn't find one.
"If I could pinpoint it exactly, I wouldn't have shot like crap," he said.
With Grady misfiring and other perimeter players hesitant, Kentucky went to Tshiebwe, the Congolese rebounding machine, again and again. Saint Peter's had no direct rebuttal for the junior transfer from West Virginia.
But the Peacocks had indirect answers — unlikely answers, including nine 3-pointers. They hadn't scored 85 points all season against a Division I team and ranked outside the nation's top 250 in offensive efficiency, but Calipari knew they had shooters.
"Let me tell ya, I was worried going into the game," he admitted afterward.
He hadn't shown it. He was "whistling and skipping and dancing" all week. He tried, he said, to get this diverse group of transfers and upperclassmen and non-top-10 recruits to play "free and loose."
But he sensed nerves.
He kept trying ease them during timeouts on Thursday night.
"We never got to that," Calipari said. "Never."
Instead, it was the 15th-seeded champs of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference who rose to the occasion. They took after their coach, Holloway, a fearless 45-year-old from Queens who led Seton Hall to the Sweet 16 as a player. He'd never been to this stage as a head coach, but throughout the week and the night, he was calm as could be.
He'd already navigated the Peacocks through a four-week COVID-19-enforced pause mid-season. They were, at the time, 2-6 against Division I foes. Holloway changed up his starting lineup. "The guys that's pretty much starting right now are the guys that didn't get COVID," he said Thursday. "So I stuck with the lineup, because I'm kinda superstitious like that." The new rotation turned the season on its head, "so why change it up?" he said.
They began stringing together wins at the 3,200-seat Run Baby Run Arena. Edert, who'd been coming off the bench since December, led them to a conference tournament title, and the school's second tournament berth over the last quarter-century.
They got the No. 15 seed, and nobody thought twice about an upset outside Jersey City, because, as Banks said, "probably a lot of people don't even know who we are." Their basketball program's Twitter account wasn't even verified.
Now everybody knows them. Now, in Jersey City, parties are raging.
But in Indianapolis, Murray State is up next.
As senior forward KC Ndefo said: "Job's not finished."