In the End, It Was the End

Coach John Calipari. (Photo by Victoria Graff)

Coach John Calipari. (Photo by Victoria Graff)

I was thinking all day Saturday and Sunday that I wished I could have written this Kentucky basketball column after the UCLA game.

I just didn’t have great vibes about playing North Carolina.

And though I was right, it was one of those games when you just run out of clock. Neither team outplayed the other. But it’s North Carolina going to the Final Four.

Okay, I’ll back up a bit and say that North Carolina did outplay the Wildcats. They played their game, letting their big men dominate inside and control the paint, letting Joel Barry and Justin Jackson drive to the basket.

Isaac Humphries gave Kentucky a fantastic jolt in the second half, but that’s not Kentucky’s game. When Malik Monk buried that three at the end, I wondered why they couldn’t have been getting the ball to him right along.

He missed the few shot attempts he took, but more attempts might have meant more scores.

I don’t know, just flailing for some closure.

The Cats also left way too many points at the free throw line. When two of the Tar Heels, who shoot in the 50s at the line, hit both their attempts and Monk and De’Aaron Fox miss one of two, you just know it’s going to be critical in a tight game.

Also, “the referees” (in quotes, because I’m not sure they deserve the full appellation) took a basket away from Bam Adebayo early on in a horrendous goal-tending call. I remember thinking at the time, “Will that come back to haunt Kentucky?”

It did.

When John Calipari’s Kentucky teams have lost in the NCAA tournament, it’s always because some nightmare came home to roost. The outside shooting failed. The free throw shooting failed. Someone got whistled over and over.

You always worry that your money shooter won’t have it that day. Jamaal Murray didn’t have it a year ago. And Monk just didn’t bring it this year. The fact is, he hadn’t brought it for a couple of weeks. For that matter, Derek Willis’ and Mychal Mulder’s shots didn’t show up either.

Those “refs” put Monk, Fox, Adebayo and Willis on the bench for long periods of the first half. That certainly didn’t help. (Actually, I think it was one “ref” in particular. Tom Leach kept making a reference to the guy who was calling plays far from the ball, then glaring at Calipari when Cal appealed to one of the other officials.)

I know, it’s lame to blame the refs. A loser’s game.

And so it’s over, another thrilling but ultimately excruciating Kentucky basketball season.

When the sting subsides, it will be fun to remember some of Monk’s unbelievable shooting nights and Fox’s roadrunner trips up the court, through the lane and to the basket. I think we’ll think of them like we do Wall, Knight, Booker, Ulis and Murray.

And it was rewarding to watch Bam’s evolution, although at the end — in this Carolina game — he was still making freshman errors, and they ultimately hurt the team. (More on that at another time.) After a season of watching Skal Labissiere and Marcus Lee try to outmuscle more muscular big men, it was nice to have some of that muscle on Kentucky’s side.

Maybe next year, Cal will recruit TWO muscular, powerful big men so they can play side-by-side in a tandem similar to that which North Carolina had.

Ah, yes, next year. Unfortunately, it is now that time in late March to begin thinking about that. Who’ll go? Who’ll stay? Who’ll come in?

By October, one hopes Big Blue Madness will retain that special enthusiasm it has for the last eight years. The pain of this premature loss will evaporate, we’ll cheer to Kentucky players donning new NBA caps and high school players donning new UK hats.

The lights will twirl, the music will sound, the smoke will rise, and we’ll all watch the stage to see those new Kentucky names — the ones Big Blue Nation has been hearing so much about, the ones it’s so eager to see — walk out onto the stage, throw up their hands to greet their new fandom, and jog down the steps and into another Kentucky basketball season.

And sitting there will be a bunch of high school seniors who Cal and Kenny Payne have been romancing to come to Lexington in 2018.

I hope Matthew Mitchell will dance again.

And you can leave Michael Buffer at home. VT