For the Wildcats, the team went away from its Terrence Jones- and Brandon Knight-centric offense to a more balanced attack that relied much more heavily on their unheralded veteran leaders. Gone were possessions where the ball was either fed into the post to Terrence Jones, or Brandon Knight dribbled his way around the top of the key, hoping something would develop. Instead, crisp ball movement with multiple scoring options became the norm.
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And then came Saturday night. In its 56-55 loss to Connecticut, Kentucky executed half of its gameplan very well. The Wildcats played excellent defense on UConn star Kemba Walker, using Deandre Liggins' harassment to hold him to 18 points on 6-of-15 shooting. When a team like UConn is held to 56 points in the Final Four, not only should you win the game, in the postgame press conference you should take credit for an amazing defensive effort that led your team to victory.
That didn't happen for Kentucky because of the other side of the court, where the Wildcats reverted to the worst of their regular-season ways. Brandon Knight went 6 for 23 from the field, taking a variety of questionable shots that, for the first time since the middle of the SEC season, actually hurt his team on the offensive end. Instead of playing like the cool, calm and collected point guard we saw in the tournament's first two weekends, this Brandon Knight looked shaken and played at a much too frantic pace.
In a key sequence late in the game, Knight took three questionable, rushed shots on back-to-back possessions, enabling Connecticut to take a lead it would never relinquish.
Kentucky's veteran leadership, which had been such a staple of Kentucky's March success, also completely disappeared on Saturday. The trio of Josh Harrellson, Darius Miller and DeAndre Liggins combined to go 4 for 20, finishing with only 14 points and seven rebounds in a performance as poor as any they had produced since SEC play. Harrellson got into early foul trouble, Miller was ineffective guarding Jeremy Lamb and Liggins shot poorly, including missing the potential game-winning shot with five seconds left in regulation.
The entire performance was reminiscent of a different Kentucky team, the one that went 2 for 6 on the road in SEC play and often lost games in the exact same manner as the one on Saturday night. That team never seemed to be able to find a cohesive offense, usually getting two solid performances by freshman (in this case, Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones) and then subpar offensive contributions from the others in the rotation. That team would hang around games where they were generally outplayed, leave themselves a chance to steal the game late, but ultimately fall short at the end, just as they did Saturday night.
There is no doubt John Calipari's team overachieved to make it to Houston. When you consider the overall talent and season performance, just getting to this point is truly praiseworthy. But one of the reasons this Kentucky group became so embraced by Big Blue Nation and led to a massive crowd of Kentucky fans descending on Houston to help set the all-time Final Four attendance record Saturday was because of the improvement it had shown all season. What once were weaknesses became strengths, and what once were frustrating tendencies that led to heartbreaking late losses became clutch performances that led to big-time tournament victories.
On Saturday night, however, the team took a step backward. The group that overachieved and once made all the right decisions instead played without intelligence and was plagued with crucial errors down the stretch. What Kentucky did to turn what looked like a rather mediocre season by Wildcats standards into the team's 14th Final Four is quite amazing. But with an eighth national championship only two victories away from fruition, the retreat in performance on Saturday night must be especially disappointing.
The NCAA tournament version of Kentucky was arguably the best team in the country. The regular-season version was on the periphery of the top 25. Unfortunately for Kentucky fans, in the game where it mattered most, the wrong version came to play.