The 2017-18 season of the University of Kentucky men’s basketball team ended in the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA tournament, the Wildcats losing to the Kansas State Wildcats 61-58. In a game that was played at a sluggish pace (51 total fouls called), the Kentucky Wildcats simply couldn’t put enough distance between themselves and Kansas State. In a season that seemed to turn around just last week, everything came undone in 40 minutes inside Phillips Arena.
PJ Washington finished with 18 points and 15 rebounds, yet he only shot 8-20 from the FT line. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had 15 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists, but also had 5 turnovers on the night while shooting 2-10 from the field. Statistically, it was amazing that Kentucky was even in the game. UK had 15 turnovers and 16 made field goals (on 42 attempts, a 38% clip) and had only 6 assists. UK was 3-10 from three point range and 23-37 from the FT line (thanks to PJ). Just looking at those numbers, the fact that Kentucky had a chance to win was amazing.
Kentucky did have chances to win. The Wildcats had opportunities to win and they simply didn’t take advantage. Postgame, PJ Washington simply stated “we lost,” when asked about his performance. Head Coach John Calipari echoed that sentiment as he recounted opportunities where he should have called timeout (with 18 seconds left and down 2 points) or called a different play (last play where there was little action and SGA had to shoot a tough 3). It’s a tough loss to end the season, but with a bit of perspective, was this a successful season?
Whether or not you love Coach Calipari’s methods on program building, it’s clear that he’s had success in Lexington. This team, of the four game losing streak, may go down as one of his better coaching jobs. As he has been reminding the Big Blue Nation all season, this team was the youngest team he’s ever had. This team took longer to finally get it. This team had to drop lower than any of his previous Kentucky teams before righting the ship and pulling themselves together and winning the SEC Tournament.
There aren’t any moral victories in Kentucky Basketball. There will be no banner in Rupp’s rafters for a Sweet 16 appearance. A loss to a lower seeded Kansas State team will only fuel the narrative that Coach Cal can’t coach. There will be bold proclamations that these Kentucky kids don’t care – I assure you that is false, the postgame locker room was bereft of any joy, only the pain of losing and an opportunity missed. These kids, this team, came together and learned how to play together and, I think, got the most of what their talent would allow.
It was clear for most of the season that these Cats weren’t exactly national championship contender. For a stretch of the season, a lot of people openly wondered if they would even qualify for the NCAA tournament. They faltered at home, they faltered on the road and left even the most diehard optimists among us wondering if they would get it. They did. They found their joy. They played for each other and they learned to depend on Coach Cal. This team wasn’t necessarily the best team in the country, but they became the best versions of themselves and that’s certainly something that the Big Blue Nation can be proud about.