In a loss that was still unfathomable a day later, the University of Kentucky’s once-promising basketball season crashed to a halt roughly 2 hours, 15 minutes after its NCAA Tournament run began in the East Region.
There was a time earlier this season that a UK postseason run was expected to last until it landed in New Orleans, site of the Final Four.
Charles Barkley said on March Madness television coverage Thursday afternoon that he liked Kentucky best to get out of the East Region. Barkley said later that Kentucky had a maddening habit of playing down to its competition. No. 2 seed UK dropping an 85-79 overtime loss to No. 15 Saint Peter’s was the most glaring example of that in the John Calipari era.
This UK squad finished 26-8 and left its fan base angry looking for answers Thursday night. Saint Peter’s became the 10th team as a 15 seed to beat a 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
The Wildcats regressed in the part of the season where they should’ve been building toward a big March-early April finish. They finished 5-4 down the stretch and never came close to regaining the momentum that made them the hottest team in college basketball during much of February.
That trend started at Arkansas, the Cats only lost by two on the road, but they struggled to shoot the ball from 3-point range. That was the first game of a late-season grouping where they fought and came up short.
They weren’t great against a bad Ole Miss team to finish up their Rupp Arena schedule. UK held up well at Florida with an eight-point win.
Getting through an SEC Tournament opener against Vandy was more of a chore than it should have been, with UK winning that game by six points. Shots were falling from 3 for UK, with TyTy Washington regaining his form for 25 points, 4-of-5 shooting from 3, and 5-of-6 free throws.
In the SEC semifinals, UK lost in desperate fashion, 69-62, to Tennessee. The Wildcats showed some disturbing signs in a game so late in the season. Their guards combined to go 1-of-17 from distance.
Kellan Grady’s shooting woes got the most attention, but he wasn’t alone. UK’s backcourt of Grady, Washington, Sahvir Wheeler and Davion Mintz put up sad numbers combined in the two losses that ended its season. They went 4-for-14 against Saint Peter’s.
Grady was a 2,000-point scorer who was hesitant at the least to shoot the basketball by the end of the year.
Teammate Keion Brooks came to his defense in postgame interviews Thursday night.
“Kellan does a lot for us shooting the ball,” Brooks said. “None of us really made shots, so I don’t think that’s something that you can put on him. Even if none of us made any shots, there were still plays that defensive or just execution-wise that we weren’t great on that cost us.”
UK didn’t guard Tennessee well at all in the SEC loss, allowing open drives to the basket and not closing out of shooters. That would be a trend against Saint Peter’s. Not getting to the hottest player for the Peacocks, Daryl Banks III, was also a hole UK’s defense Thursday night. Banks scored 27 points and made 5-of-8 from 3.
Calipari was at a loss on the sidelines, he was getting little help from his staff, evidently.
He searched for answers after the game, as much as his players were searching for shots that they could make late in the season.
“We were in every timeout trying to encourage,” Calipari said. “’You’re going to be fine; we’ve just got to make a play.’ We were trying to help them get through it. Obviously didn’t do the kind of job we needed to.”
This was the finish for a UK team that six weeks ago was considered a top national championship contender.
Coming off the horrid COVID-19 season where UK went 9-16, Calipari said this would be a resurgent season.
This is a roster that had a mix of veterans and first-year players that made it unique in the Calipari era. UK retooled its coaching staff, adding Orlando Antigua and Chin Coleman. The Wildcats worked the transfer portal to near perfection, so it seemed.
Oscar Tshiebwe played a season that got him in the bright light on national Player of the Year honors. He literally carried the Wildcats as far as he could against Saint Peter’s, going for 30 points and 16 rebounds. Grady was considered an offensive machine about a month ago.
Wheeler was a guy who could push the offense in the open court. He’s also the one who could match six assists with six turnovers in UK’s most critical game of the season. In the most critical moment of overtime, Wheeler simply threw the ball to Saint Peter’s.
The weeks after a season ends have always been hectic with Calipari as head coach. One and done, staying or going, there will be a lot of movement in the offseason.
Tshiebwe, Brooks and Shaedon Sharpe will all have big decisions to make in the next few days and weeks about whether they stay at UK or go. Washington will likely go to the NBA Draft.
Wheeler will get a hard evaluation from Calipari after his often good, but sometimes unsteady season. Wheeler could return to UK with NIL endorsement chances in the balance.
Jacob Toppin could be a top player next season. Lance Ware, Bryce Hopkins and Daimion Collins could all be key inside players if they don’t transfer. CJ Frederick sat out this season recovering from an injury, but he is expected to be a key on the perimeter next season.
Grady and Mintz will be gone as graduate players. Dontaie Allen will most likely leave UK.
Chris Livingston and Cason Wallace are two 5-star guards who make up the 2022 signee class, so far. Kentucky is expected to supplement the roster with Division I transfers this spring.
It’s doubtful there was much looking ahead by BBN to next season. It was still getting over the shock of this season being over.