Kentucky basketball: Are you kidding? Early exit for Wildcats calls everything into question
Kentucky fans wondered about their team after an ugly performance in the SEC Tournament. But a solid draw and the transition to the NCAA Tournament brought back plenty of optimism from Big Blue Nation.
Then, Thursday happened.
Kentucky’s 85-79 loss to No. 15 seed Saint Peter’s is a shocking end to a season where Kentucky never quite got over the proverbial hump. The Wildcats finished the season 26-8 after several significant players could not get untracked.
Oscar Tshiebwe was his usual self — likely the best player in college basketball, a dynamo on the backboard and efficient on his offense.
His 28th double-double, 30 points and 16 rebounds, was the only dependable facet of Kentucky’s game against the Peacocks. Graduate shooter Kellan Grady had his second straight miserable shooting game, shooting 1-for-9. Freshman TyTy Washington was exceedingly flat — scoring 5 points on 2-for-10 shooting, fouling a 3-point shooter to give up the lead inside the final 8 minutes, losing the ball on an overtime drive to the basket.
Kentucky’s second scorer on Thursday was point guard Sahvir Wheeler, who used his speed to create several key baskets down the stretch and added 11 points. UK’s other three starters shot 5-for-26.
Worse than Kentucky’s offense, defensively the Wildcats gave up way too many good looks to a Peacocks squad that averaged just 67 points per game for the season. Guard Daryl Banks drilled 5 3-point shots to tally 27 total points. Reserve guard Doug Edert reached double figures in scoring with 18 points. The Peacocks hovered nearly 50% shooting both overall and from 3-point territory throughout the game — ultimately finishing above the marks in both categories.
For Kentucky, the Wildcats never quite hit their stride. The Wildcats reached the top 10 in late January, worked through injuries to Sahvir Wheeler and TyTy Washington, but then finished the season disconnected on defense and unable to make jump shots. Saint Peter’s became just the 4th team to shoot 50% in a game against the Wildcats, and the first to top 50% from 3-point territory. Kentucky only outrebounded Saint Peter’s 36-35 and shot 1-for-6 on free throws in overtime.
Kentucky felt like a team that was one player away for much of the season. Frustratingly, top recruit Shaedon Sharpe was enrolled and sitting out … and his skills might have been the difference. On the other hand, Grady was one of the SEC’s top shooters and Washington was an all-SEC level player, but both finished the season ice-cold. Washington never topped 50% shooting in a game after his late January injury. Grady shot 2-for-17 in the season’s final 2 games.
For Kentucky, this season was a testing ground on a new type of team building. Somewhat thwarted by poor returns in the traditional one-and-done market, Kentucky recruited one one-and-done player (Washington), then supplemented him with transfers Grady, Tshiebwe and Wheeler and returning veterans like Keion Brooks and Davion Mintz (who was himself a transfer). The approach was supposed to yield a more experienced and defined team that would compete with veteran squads in March.
Instead, Kentucky ended the season still trying to fill needs on the team, lacking any offensive focus on late possessions, and seemingly unable to shadow mid-major players on defense. Those who contend that college basketball passed John Calipari by on the night that Wisconsin upset an unbeaten Kentucky team in the 2015 Final Four have another point to add to their argument.
The Wildcats hadn’t suffered an NCAA Tournament loss to a double-digit seed since 1982, when they lost to No. 11 seed Middle Tennessee State. Suffice it to say that this 2 vs. 15 upset is one that will be remembered in Lexington for some time to come.