BY LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky’s basketball season certainly did not end the way players, coaches or fans expected — not after the Cats won nine of 10 games going into their NCAA Sweet Sixteen matchup with Kansas State.
Freshman guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander became UK’s best player — and perhaps the best player in the NCAA Tournament the first two rounds. He had 15 points, five rebounds and five assists in the 61-58 loss to Kansas State but it was not nearly the type of game he had been playing. He was just 2-for-10 from the field and had five turnovers that led to easy Kansas State points. He did get to the foul line 12 times and made 11.
It was a tribute to him that Kansas State set its defense to stop him.
“We kind of just crowded him a little bit, kind of watched him a lot, just to know what he did,” Kansas State guard Barry Brown Jr. said. In the first half, he was killing us just drawing fouls and getting to the line, 11 of 12 from the free-throw line. For him to finish with 15 (points) just shows that we got it together. Can’t say we stopped fouling, but we stopped fouling him, and we was able to keep him off the line.”
He finished the season averaging 14.4 points, 4.1 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game. He led the team in steals (61), assists (189), minutes played (1,248) and free throw percentage (81.7). He was not known as a 3-point shooter but hit 40.4 percent from long range and 48.5 percent overall.
He became the second player in school history to have at least 530 points, 189 assists, and 153 rebounds in his freshman season — John Wall was the other one. He also became the first player in school history with three NCAA Tournament games with at least 15 points, five rebounds and five assists.
Remember he was not a McDonald’s All-American — or even a consensus five-star recruit. He was expected to be the backup for Quade Green and/or Hamidou Diallo. Instead, he became UK’s best player and more importantly, the team leader. His early-morning individual workouts at midseason led others to do the same thing and that’s when UK’s season took a turn for the better.
“His was an amazing story,” ESPN analyst Dick Vitale said. “Kentucky gets the best of the best recruiting-wise, but he was not supposed to be the star. He played his role and then became their best player. He was not afraid of the big stage. He didn’t hide from the ball at key times. And he was really fun to watch play because of the way he competed.”
Gilgeous-Alexander is projected a first-round pick in the upcoming NBA draft and even as high as a lottery pick in some projections. That means there’s almost no chance he’ll be back at UK but despite the finished he said “sucked” after the game, it was a memorable year for a player who did all he could to stuff the stat sheet and help UK win.