NCAAA Tournament 2018: John Calipari shoulders blame for Kentucky's loss to Kansas State in Sweet 16
Calipari said he should have called a timeout during Kentucky's late-game scenarios
After saying the Wildcats got screwed with their seed and bracket on Selection Sunday and then doubling back on that statement when the team arrived in "Cat-lanta," the thousands of Kentucky fans who bought up tickets to this weekend's South Regional action are headed home disappointed, wondering about the Final Four run that might have been.
So confident in their team's ability to emerge from a bracket with Nos. 7, 9 and 11 seeds, Big Blue Nation had barely gotten in the building for the second regional semifinal when Kansas State had jumped out to a 13-1 lead before the first media timeout. The celebratory mood turned to angst early, and it never subsided until Kansas State coach Bruce Weber was celebrating in the one tiny corner of the arena with a friendly purple hue.
Every year, Calipari has a slightly different group in the NCAA Tournament tasked with living up to expectations that are propped up by NBA mock drafts and the insatiable thirst for success that drives the Kentucky fan base. The 2017-18 Wildcats, which started five freshman on Thursday night, didn't have the same look as the group that had apparently turned the corner two weeks earlier as it rolled to an SEC Tournament title. Instead, they looked like the team that was struggling in SEC play earlier in the season.
Kentucky looked lost at times with its team defense and the mistakes added up on both ends of the floor, reintroducing frustrations that fans had long forgotten. Calipari had no more mind games to play, instead the effusive leader of one of college basketball's most visible franchises was left taking the blame for some of his team's late-game errors.
"I should have called that timeout late with 19 seconds to go, but we had worked on something, and I thought we could catch them off guard. Veteran team, should have called a timeout," Calipari said after the game. "Can't put that on these guys. That's right on my shoulders."
When Kentucky, which finished 26-11, lost four straight games in SEC play for the first time in the Calipari era, there was a reckoning with the potential for what this team could be in 2017-18. No one saw the Wildcats missing the NCAA Tournament, but the losing streak prevented even the more optimistic fans from thinking that a Final Four run was in the cards in March. All of that doubt quickly went out the window as the Wildcats caught fire and won seven of their next eight games, culminating in a win against SEC regular season co-champion Tennessee in the tournament final.
Even though the season ended well short of where Calipari, or any other Kentucky fan in Atlanta might have thought, he still told reporters it was his most "rewarding" season yet in Lexington.
"Yeah, again, both individually and collectively, this was a rewarding year for me," Calipari said. "I wish it could have ended in another week, but you know, for me to see how individual players got better, for me to see how this team came together."
Calipari was able to pinpoint key moments in the game or important factors, like Kentucky getting worn down by a physical Kansas State team. He was uncertain about the future of his team, who would be back and what lies ahead for the Wildcats, but he was certain about one thing: he could have handled the last minutes better. He listed off the breakdowns in late game offensive execution, and again repeated his desire that he had called timeout to settle his young team.
"I come back to the big play for us was down two," Calipari said. "We were going to run a play to go weak side corner for a 3, and we end up not having it, throwing it to Quade [Green], I was trying to get a timeout at that point. But that's on me, that's not on these kids. That was a choice I made. The last play was a curl. We were trying to pop Wenyen [Gabriel], and it kind of got messed up."
If you take the entire season and look at Kentucky's body of work in a vacuum, it's probably a Sweet 16 team and not much more. The fact that all the breaks went their way in the region and the late-season improvement helped mask that fact in the eyes of many, proving that the "poison" of media hype didn't impact the team like it did the rest of the college basketball world.
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