And then it was over. The precarious house of cards that was this yearâ€™s Kentucky basketball entry crumbled when its strengths unexpectedly disappeared and all of its flimsy weaknesses were exposed.
Big men couldnâ€™t defend, couldnâ€™t control the boards, couldnâ€™t score â€“ not even a foot or two from the rim.
Derek Willis, the corner-shooting phenomenon who appeared mid-season to reshape the UK offense, took two shots.
Though free-throw shooting was not the culprit (who wouldnâ€™t take 15 of 19 from this team?), Willis, Jamal Murray, Tyler Ulis and Dominique Hawkins each left a point bonking off the rim. Those were supposed to have been Kentuckyâ€™s reliable free-throw shooters. In an air-tight game like this one, those lost points meant a lot.
But what everyone will remember about this game, of course, was Murrayâ€™s shooting woes. A team relying on outside shooting had concerned me. It can go south, and it did. Murray shot seven-for-18, which isnâ€™t horrible, but one-for-9 from beyond the arc was devastating.
Even when a shooter like Murray is missing, the instructions from his coach are usually to keep shooting; the shots will fall. And Iâ€™m sure thatâ€™s what John Calipari advised. The problem was they didnâ€™t fall. The other problem was it closed out any offensive balance. Murray and Ulis took 38 of the teamâ€™s 57 field goal attempts for 43 of its 67 points.
Isaiah Briscoe, who has energized so many Kentucky wins, took only three shots. Alex Poythress, whose athleticism and leaping have long been expected to create match-up problems for slow and clumsy big men, took only five. Skal Labissiere, who seemed to have found his role as a medium-range shooter of sweet jump shots and soft hooks, took six. They made a combined five.
Too often, Kentucky drives to the basket resulted in charging calls. Suddenly, for the first time all season that I can remember, the officials became protective of defenders getting a shoulder or forearm into their chests, less-concerned with the dreaded chicken wing. To be fair, they called it the other way too.
I wonâ€™t make a claim that the officials took the game away because there were so many other things that went wrong. But players have to know how a game is going to be called. Everyday parts of the game suddenly become violations. I donâ€™t want this to sound like crybaby talk, but Tyler Ulis simply does not foul out of games. Not because he gets superstar calls and non-calls as Ben Simmons once complained, but because heâ€™s too good, too careful and too smart a defensive player. Yogi Ferrell did not outplay him and did not foul him out. The referees did. Okay, forgive me one complaint about the officiating.
The game had a surreal feel to it right from the beginning. It almost seemed that Kentucky was trying to figure out winning basketball instead of just playing its game. The substitutions and combinations on the court often felt unbalanced and unproductive to me.
Youâ€™d think that by the 36th game of the season, a team would have its rhythm in place, but that wasnâ€™t the sense on Saturday. It all seemed kind of frantic, as if Cal kept reconsidering what might work. But when you have Dominique Hawkins getting as many minutes as Derek Willis, youâ€™re giving up some offense â€“ especially when Marcus Lee and Skal and other non-contributors are on the court at the same time.
And, yes, all this would be moot if the normal Jamal Murray had shown up. He kept running and circling, driving and pulling up, rushing off-balance shots, just to get something going â€“ but weâ€™d seen him do that all season. Bad Murray shots are not necessarily bad shots. They often do go in.
And good or bad, thatâ€™s the Kentucky offense Calipari brought to this yearâ€™s dance. It was a patchwork affair from the start, when Skal was found wanting as the anchor of both offense and defense. In retrospect, maybe Calipari should have worked harder to convince Dakari Johnson to come back. That decision worked out for neither one of them.
So the 2015-16 Kentucky team bowed out of the NCAA tournament earlier than any other Calipari tourney team. And it feels empty this week for Big Blue Nation. Only the hopes of a really great recruiting team for next year will get the Nation through another summer.
But this season was also an opportunity to watch Tyler Ulis play. And despite ups and downs and a disappointing finish, that will remain a memorable privilege. VT