Posted by Matt Jones
It was a strange season for the Kentucky Wildcats, one in which the team turned around its worst SEC road record in nearly two decades into an unexpected Final Four appearance. John Calipari’s team struggled at various points in the year to find any success away from Rupp Arena, but by the time March came around, the Wildcats mixed a surprising conglomeration of three talented freshmen and three wily old veterans into a winning formula.
On Saturday night, the ride ended against UConn, as the Wildcats reverted back to some old bad habits against Jim Calhoun’s team. But that doesn’t change the overall successful nature of the season and the amazing run that Calipari once again orchestrated. In early February many longtime UK followers, myself included, wandered aloud why this year’s Kentucky team had seemed to create such a widespread malaise throughout the Big Blue fanbase. The always passionate UK fans seemed a bit tired of the season and the frustrating nature of this team. But that same group changed everything in just under two months, culminating in a packed house in Reliant Stadium on Saturday night, with blue once again predominating the crowd.
The season also once again proved just what an under-appreciated coach John Calipari truly is. While praised (or questioned) for his recruiting abilities, Calipari is rarely given significant credit for his ability to get the best out of his teams. With this group, Kentucky reached heights that no one imagined and a team with far less talent than what he had last year, or will have next year, cut down the nets in the East regional.
The Wildcats didn’t however beat the Huskies for five reasons:
--- Brandon Knight wasn’t Brandon Knight: The point guard who showcased a dazzling array of skills, but also a cool demeanor that seemed infallible, was simply not himself against the Huskies. He shot 6-23 from the field, but more importantly, did not play with the same precision to which Kentucky had grown accustomed. He attempted to force the offense way too often and except for a quick burst early in the second half, his shots were usually way off target. The Wildcats will rarely win when Brandon Knight is not a star and he was not a star on Saturday.
--- The Veterans Left the Building: Junior Deandre Liggins was very effective on the defensive end against Kemba Walker, but otherwise Kentucky’s three grizzled veterans retreated back to their pre-March selves. Josh Harrellson and Darius Miller missed shots that they normally finished and Liggins seemed wholly unable to penetrate and finish at the rim as he had become accustomed to doing. The great stories of the rise of the veterans was a theme of March, but it disappeared against the Huskies.
--- Free Throws: Shoot 4-12 in a big game from the free throw line, and your chances of winning are slim. Kentucky missed crucial free throws down the stretch, including two big misses by Terrence Jones and Liggins in the closing two minutes. Free throws are John Calipari’s achilles heel and even with a team that had been successful all year from the charity stripe, it bit them late.
--- Fatigue: I never thought fatigue would be an issue for Kentucky and it had not shown up as a problem all season. But because of an odd stretch in the last ten minutes of the second half, the six-man rotation of Kentucky was gassed. With no stoppage of play and thus no television timeout for a six-minute stretch, Kentucky’s players energy was zapped and they made poor decisions on the offensive end. That gave UConn a lead that it would never relinquish.
--- Poor Final Play: Deandre Liggins made a big shot against North Carolina in the East regional and hit a huge three to cut the deficit late against UConn. But, there probably was a better final look that Kentucky could have had at the basket with its final shot, than a contested three pointer by Liggins in the final moments. UK went far riding Brandon Knight and his decision making ability. But the Wildcats probably wish they had that play to do over again.
What’s Next for Kentucky
Next season is the year that gives John Calipari his best chance to win a national championship. Many of the pieces from this year’s team will return. Darius Miller and Deandre Liggins should come back to provide senior leadership. Freshman Terrence Jones is likely headed to the NBA draft, but guards Brandon Knight and Doron Lamb still have decisions to make.
But the key to next year’s success is a recruiting class that may (unbelievably) be John Calipari’s best of his career. Four McDonald’s All Americans will come to Lexington, each of whom are immensely talented. The group of Anthony Davis, Michael Gilchrist, Marquis Teague and Kyle Wiltjer could be one of the five best recruiting classes in college basketball history. With that group, Kentucky has its best chance to cut down the nets in over a decade and the pressure will be on to have a monster season.
Either way, Kentucky basketball is back among the top 5 programs in America and as long as John Calipari is the coach, they will stay in that position. Many around Kentucky will lament the fact that they were so close to championship No. 8 and fell short, but the chances will be there in the future, the best of which may be next season.