Three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s NCAA Tournament loss to Kansas State
Three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s 75-69 loss to Kansas State in the NCAA Tournament on Sunday in Greensboro, N.C.
1. Once again, UK was just not good enough
In the end, we should have expected this. After all, we’d seen it before in this seesaw of a season. Many times.
Yes, John Calipari’s club was a three-point favorite over the Kansas State Wildcats for their second-round matchup. Never mind that K-State was the No. 3 seed in the East Region and UK was the No. 6 seed. Never mind that Kansas State had gone 4-4 over its final eight regular-season games and Kentucky had shown the intensity required needed for tournament play in UK’s 61-53 win over Providence on Friday.
Still, this was a Kentucky team that carried 11 losses into the tournament. It lost four at home. It lost games to two of the three worst teams in the SEC. Ranked fourth in the AP preseason top 25, it finished third in its conference. Then it lost its first SEC Tournament game.
Many of the same things that hurt the Cats all season, hurt them again when it mattered most. Defensive breakdowns. Poor shooting. The inability to make that big shot or big play just as the opponent was making those very type of plays. Daggers, Calipari called them. So did his players.
“They made daggers and we didn’t,” UK’s Jacob Toppin said in a somber losing locker room. “We have to live with that.”
Kansas State went 0-for-12 from three-point range in the first half and still led 29-26 at the break. In the second half, however, the purple Wildcats made threes at key times. When UK led 54-51, Markquis Nowell, KSU’s crafty 5-foot-7 guard, buried a three-pointer to tie the score at 54. When UK led 60-56, Nowell did it again, draining a triple with 3:31 left.
When UK led 62-61, K-State’s Ismael Massoud took just his second shot of the entire game. When his three-pointer from the right wing swished through the net with 2:18 left, you could feel the shift. Less than a minute later, teammate Keyontae Johnson nailed a three of his own. K-State’s lead was seven with 1:21 left. From there, the winners went 8-of-8 from the foul line to seal its Sweet 16 trip.
Truth be told, when you have little room for error, you can’t give up those types of plays. And so many NCAA Tournament games are decided at winning time, and for whatever reason Kentucky showed it could not consistently make those winning plays. Same story Sunday.
2. An inconsistent team was hurt by inconsistent individuals
Sunday’s loss was emblematic of the season in more ways than one. Once again, the Cats could not put together back-to-back games. And in this particular game, UK’s individual efforts were also wildly inconsistent. A couple of Cats were outstanding. Other Cats struggled.
Oscar Tshiebwe was outstanding. Kentucky’s senior center scored 25 points and grabbed 18 rebounds. He was 9 of 11 from the foul line. Afterward, he sat with his back to the media, staring at his locker, composing his thoughts, feeling the pain of the loss. It took him awhile.
“I don’t know how to explain,” he said.
Cason Wallace was outstanding. Yes, UK’s freshman point guard committed five turnovers. But he also scored 21 points, making 9 of his 11 shots to go with his nine rebounds and four assists. Playing hurt, as he has for at least the last month of the season, Wallace could not have played any harder.
Unfortunately, Jacob Toppin struggled. So many times this season, Kentucky played well when Toppin played well. Sunday was not one of those times. He missed six of his seven shots, including his two three-point attempts. He managed just four rebounds. Afterward, Toppin said he took the shots he normally takes. Still, many of those shots looked contested. And they wouldn’t drop.
Then there’s Antonio Reeves. The same Reeves who scored 37 points in the win at Arkansas in the regular-season finale couldn’t get anything to drop Sunday. He was 1 of 15 from the floor, including 1 of 10 from three-point range. He missed open threes. He missed contested threes. He missed runners. Finally, with 6.3 seconds left, he saw a three-pointer go down. Of course.
On the biggest stage, Kentucky needed significant contributions from all five of its starters. And that just didn’t happen.
3. There’s no offseason after a disappointing season
Other programs slide into the offseason when their seasons are complete. Not Kentucky. There is no offseason for Kentucky basketball. Especially when that Kentucky basketball season comes to a disappointing end.
That’s been pretty much the way it has been since the 2015 Final Four, 38-1 season. Calipari’s Cats lost in the second round of the 2016 tournament, the Elite Eight in 2017, the Sweet 16 in 2018 and the Elite Eight in 2019. There was the first-round loss to No. 15 Saint Peter’s n 2022. No reason to rehash that one again.
Still, failing to make even the Sweet 16 for a second year will undoubtedly lead to sniping and second-guess and speculation. Who stays? Who goes? Will Calipari make staff changes beyond the departure of K.T. Turner for the head coaching job at Texas-Arlington?
Most of all, there will be the question of whether John Calipari has lost his edge, much less his magic touch. He has the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class arriving in the fall, but his critics will say they have seen those types of classes before without the desired result. He hasn’t reached the Final Four since 2015. BBN wants Final Fours. And championship banners.
“I understand what this program is about,” Calipari said Sunday in the postgame press conference. “I think, again, that’s what make it is what it is, and that’s why I tell players, this isn’t for everybody because the expectations are so high. The same thing with coaching. It’s not for everybody.”
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