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Final Fours Are Not Guaranteed

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The Kentucky Wildcats’ 73-67 defeat at the hands of the Indiana Hoosiers in the second round of the NCAA Tournament gave them their earliest end to a season since 2013 when Nerlens Noel was lost for the season.

It does feel weird. Kentucky’s first and last loss of the season can both be summed up in one word: Thomas.

Thomas Welsh of UCLA went for 21 points, 11 rebounds, and hurt the Cats with multiple mid-range jumpers. Indiana’s Thomas Bryant used his bulk. He had a big second half on his way to 19 points and five boards.

To elaborate a little more, we saw the struggles that plagued Kentucky’s big men present themselves, once again, against Indiana. Alex Poythress got the ball in prime position down low and just wasn’t able to see any positive results for his efforts. Skal Labissiere, Marcus Lee, and Derek Willis had rough afternoons, as well. Add in Jamal Murray having an off night by his standards from the perimeter and the hurdles were just too numerous to overcome.

That was the theme of the season. At times, there were flashes. When all of the bigs came to play, it was a sight to behold. Those sights were just too few and far between this year. When the team was playing well, there was optimism for the things that they could accomplish.

When the lack of a consistent inside presence persisted, it was difficult to envision this team reeling off six straight wins in the NCAA tournament, no matter who they were matched up against.

Winning a national championship or getting to a Final Four is difficult for any team and any coach, even when things are going great. When things just don’t click or go as planned, the degree of difficulty is greatly heightened.

Those difficulties fell squarely on the shoulders of the nation’s best back court. Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray had stellar seasons. They had to carry the lion’s share of the load all season long. Ulis came to play every game and literally played nearly every play of every game. His value to the team can’t be overstated.

Kentucky’s track record under John Calipari provided a reason for cautious optimism in spite of the struggles this team faced. Even in seasons where Kentucky wasn’t dominant, we have witnessed timely winning streaks that have produced deep runs in March. Final Four appearances had become even more of the norm in the last seven years.

That’s saying something when you think of Kentucky’s rich tournament tradition.

That tradition coupled with high expectations does make things feel odd when Kentucky isn’t one of the last four  as Oscar Combs’ tweet indicated. Fans have every right to be disappointed; it’s understandable. If that disappointment loses its perspective, let your mind drift back to the Billy Gillispie era. That will provide the sobering dose of reality that this early exit isn’t so bad.

Kentucky will be back in hot pursuit of title No. 9 before we know it. They will be back, attempting to narrow the gap between themselves and UCLA as the school with the most titles in a matter of months. Get ready and prepare yourself for another ride, and another one after that!

Follow @VinnyHardy

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