Once the dust settles, reality should set in: Kentucky's time to follow in Virginia's footsteps begins now
In the moment, there’s no such thing as a silver lining. There was nothing that could be said to wipe the tears off the face of Oscar Tshiebwe, there were no words that could prevent Keion Brooks from burying his head in his jersey and there wasn’t any way you could’ve made sense of what had just happened to a stunned Davion Mintz.
Kentucky’s opening-round loss to Saint Peter’s will forever live in college basketball lore. Considering that Saint Peter’s had never won an NCAA Tournament game before Thursday night, it will be remembered in the same breath as UMBC becoming the first 16-seed to ever beat a 1-seed when it knocked off Virginia in 2018.
There’s no spin zone that can change that. But once the shock wears off, a new question must be asked.
Can Kentucky follow in Virginia’s footsteps?
Lost in the shuffle of the Wildcats’ collapse was that it was still a team that completed the largest year-to-year turnaround (in terms of total wins) in program history. Virginia went from being first 1-seed to fall to a 16-seed, to winning a national title a year later. It might not have been a movie script because that type of swing was unprecedented, even in a sport that yields as much madness as any.
Tony Bennett did the impossible. After hearing about how he and his defensive, slow-it-down style would never win on the big stage, he turned 2018’s pain into 2019’s glory.
“You have a scar, and it reminds you of that [March 2018], but it’s a memory,” Bennett said after Virginia’s title in 2019 (via The Washington Post). “Does it go away completely? No, I wish it wouldn’t have happened in some ways. Now I say, ‘Well, it bought us a ticket here. So be it.’ … Is the pain gone? I still feel a little ‘uhh’ because I remember that feeling, but I think we’re OK.”
Calipari had never experienced a first-round upset as a head coach. Well, technically his 2002-03 Memphis team was upset as a 7-seed against 10-seed Arizona State, but comparing that to this past weekend would be like comparing Kentucky’s national brand to Saint Peter’s. One has a coach on an $86 million contract while another has an athletics website that crashed during its biggest moment in school history.
But this is new territory for Kentucky. This isn’t getting upset by Kansas State in the Sweet 16. This is national embarrassment. This is having constant reminders of your lowest on-court moment perhaps ever as a head coach. And unlike those past Kentucky teams that were upset in March, this one probably won’t have some new batch of McDonald’s All-Americans who spend a year in Lexington before heading off to the NBA.
That’s why this pill was so tough to swallow for Kentucky. It was a roster built on veterans and transfers, which was what the fan base had been clamoring for. There’s no guarantee that formula, which seems to be the new era of roster building for Calipari, yields a team that seemingly had as much cohesion as the 2021-22 squad had. We don’t know what the future holds for the likes of Tshiebwe, TyTy Washington or anyone else with an NBA decision to make.
Virginia had the benefit of returning 4 of its 6 leading scorers from that 2018 team. On the surface, a 1-seed with so much returning production is set up for success the following year. Also on the surface, one can’t assume anything once you fall in that fashion.
And the wild thing about Virginia was that it didn’t lose some nail-biter in overtime like Kentucky did. UMBC won by 20. I mean, go back and watch Ty Jerome having to answer a question like this:
Reporter: ‘Were you aware a 16 has never beaten a 1?’
Ty Jerome: ‘Yeah, everybody’s aware of that. Thanks for bringing it up’ pic.twitter.com/3RWDjQfHeL
— Adam Zagoria (@AdamZagoria) March 17, 2018
A year later, Jerome watched himself star in “One Shining Moment” on a championship stage and then he tapped Pat Forde on the shoulder and told him “you’re gonna have to write a different article now.”
That isn’t an overnight transformation. Kentucky’s path to following Virginia isn’t pretending that 2022 didn’t happen. It did. The entire college basketball world saw it. That’s going to follow the Wildcats everywhere they go. They can either embrace it or let it define them. This could turn into a closed window for Calipari at Kentucky.
It takes someone like Jerome to understand how to move on. It takes a coach like Bennett to not let that nightmare cloud his judgment during that 6-game path to a title, even if it admittedly never went away.
We don’t know if Kentucky has a player or a coach with the mental capacity to follow that path. It couldn’t have been easy to go on the road and get those reminders from hostile crowds. Shoot, they probably couldn’t even avoid that on their own campus. Win a big game and it’s “well, don’t get your hopes up.”
That’s perhaps the difference between this go-around compared to the 2014 Kentucky team bouncing back after the Robert Morris loss in the first round of the NIT in 2013. Kentucky had a lost year after winning it all. As embarrassing as that Robert Morris loss was, there weren’t expectations. That 2014 team’s identity was vastly different. This challenge will be vastly different, and honestly, it’s pretty improbable.
But Virginia at least showed it was possible. Maybe Calipari needs to restructure the offense and find more guys who can consistently stretch the floor. We saw him modernize his approach with the transfer portal. Perhaps rethinking spacing — and finally putting more of an emphasis on free-throw shooting? — would change Kentucky’s postseason fortunes around.
What seems clear is that lifetime contract aside, Calipari is a long way removed from being the guy who made 4 Final Fours in a 5-year stretch. Because of that, Calipari is in a different spot than Bennett, who had never reached a Final Four. But all that matters is Calipari’s team is tasked with a similar feat.
Is that fair? Probably not. But the only way to move on from an unprecedented loss is an unprecedented turnaround.
For most of the year, that was the mantra coming off the Cats’ worst season in program history. That was chocked up to it being a COVID season. You can’t chock up Saint Peter’s to anything other than a team failing to show up in a win-or-go-home game.
Kentucky will have plenty of time at home to think about how 2022 could’ve been different. Sooner or later, though, it’ll be time to turn the page.
The 2019 Virginia playbook isn’t gonna read itself.