With spot in Sweet 16 at stake, is this Kentucky's get-right day vs. K-State?
When was the last time John Calipari had Kentucky’s fan base satisfied? No, not for a game, because a pair of wins over Tennessee this season weren’t exactly bad. A year ago, Kentucky blasted Kansas and North Carolina, then sat at home and watched them meet again in the NCAA title game. When was the last time Big Blue Nation was happy with the overall situation of the UK basketball program?
That might be before the 9-16 season, before the pandemic that canceled the 2020 NCAA Tournament, it might have been since 2015? Some have never been satisfied with Calipari, maintaining that a pro-centric one-and-done approach (never mind the steadily elderly UK teams of the past 2 seasons) has ruined college basketball and is now ruining Kentucky. Some also like to yell at clouds and frighten small children off their respective lawns, and there’s a fair amount of overlap between those groups.
In any case, for a UK team that limped (figuratively and literally) into the NCAA Tournament as a No. 6 seed, Sunday’s matchup with No. 3 seed Kansas State (in which the worse-seeded version of Wildcats are a 3-point favorite) is a chance to get some things right.
First, it’s a Sweet 16 trip, Kentucky’s first since 2019, when the Wildcats fell in overtime to Auburn in the Elite Eight.
Second, it’s a bridge to 2023-24, when Kentucky again has the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class ready, willing and available. As opposed to the No. 2 and No. 5 national classes (per 247sports) that UK has landed over the past 2 years, next year’s bunch is supposedly a corker. Landing the nation’s No. 2, 3, 4, 9, and 30 players is the kind of thing that Calipari did when he was bringing John Wall and Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns to Lexington.
Third, in a year when North Carolina missed the NCAA Tournament and Duke and Kansas both were knocked off (and by SEC teams no less) on Saturday, Kentucky can regain a little mojo in the battle of the blue-bloods.
Suddenly, a UK basketball season that seemed fated to end uncomfortably close to disaster could end pretty well. But before any pre-hatched chickens get counted, the Wildcats have to figure out the Kansas State Wildcats, who have overachieved under new coach Jerome Tang.
Former Florida standout Keyontae Johnson is one of the season’s feel-good stories, returning from serious heart issues to star for K-State, averaging 17.7 points and 7. 1 rebounds per game. Long-range gunner Markquis Nowell has put together a significant career, scoring nearly 1,000 points at Little Rock and is just 9 points short of 900 more points as a Wildcat.
K-State is solid, but not exactly imposing. Take Johnson, who is 0-5 in his career against Kentucky. UK was 9-0 against KSU all-time until their 2018 Sweet 16 encounter, which KSU won 61-58. For that matter, Tang is a first-year head coach, looking to pick up his second NCAA Tournament win while Calipari is hoping for his 16th Sweet 16 trip.
But as has been the case for much of the year, Kentucky’s most substantial foe might be Kentucky. Against Providence on Friday, the Wildcats got big efforts from Jacob Toppin (18 points and 6 rebounds) and Antonio Reeves (22 points, including 5-for-9 3-point shooting) and added a 25-board effort from Oscar Tshiebwe. But Cason Wallace hasn’t had a good shooting game since scoring 19 on Feb. 25 against Auburn. Kentucky got zero bench points for the second time in two games. The lingering possible return of Sahvir Wheeler would be a wild card which could easily help or hinder the Wildcats.
For much of the season, UK has been one step forward and then two steps back.
But in March, with the program’s status in the world of college hoops on the verge of fading, Calipari could easily pull another surprising March rally. Does UK mildly surprise the world with a Sweet 16 run. The prediction here is yes, with Wallace finding a way to get into the lane for a pair of baskets in the final two minutes that make the difference as UK wins by 4.