BOZICH | Opportunity lost: Kentucky, Calipari will never have easier Final Four path
Kentucky and John Calipari will never have an easier path to the Final Four, but missed free throws, turnovers and some coaching errors led to a Kansas State upset Thursday night.
ATLANTA (WDRB) -- John Calipari will have better teams at Kentucky. He'll have guys who can make more free throws. He’ll have the next Anthony Davis, the next Devin Booker and the next John Wall.
If things get wild and crazy, Calipari might even have a team with a junior.
But here is one thing Calipari will not have at Kentucky:
A team with more sunshine and sugar along its path to the NCAA Final Four. That is what will forever sting about Kentucky’s 61-58 loss to Kansas State in the NCAA Tournament South Regional semifinals Thursday night.
Given an opportunity to do something extraordinary, Kentucky instead did what has become a regular occurence for many college basketball teams over the last eight days — lose to an inferior team.
Ask Virginia, Xavier, Michigan State, Tennessee, Cincinnati, North Carolina and other teams that will be watching the Final Four and wondering why they aren’t in San Antonio next weekend. For Kentucky these are the tidbits that will furrow brows:
Couldn’t beat a nine seed.
Couldn’t beat a team without a single Top 125 recruit.
Couldn’t make Kansas State play fast when the only way that K-State could win was to play slow, deliberate and rough.
Couldn’t beat a team whose best player sat out the final 20 minutes with an injured foot.
Couldn’t beat a team that finished the game without a player taller than 6 feet 4 on the floor.
Couldn’t beat a team that went 0-7 against the three best teams in the Big 12, losing those games by an average of 16 points.
“They were playing more aggressive,” said UK guard Quade Green. “They were on the ball way more than we was.”
I could find more ways to knock Kansas State but that will do because all Bruce Weber’s team must do to make the Final Four is defeat Loyola (Chicago) Saturday in the South Regional final.
Loyola is an 11 seed.
There won’t be many times in a coach’s career when he can take a team to the Final Four by defeating teams seeded 12th, 13th, 9th and 11th. Instead Kentucky exits with its 11th defeat in 27 games and its first loss in a Sweet Sixteen game over Calipari’s nine seasons in Lexington. He had been 6-0 at getting to the Elite Eight.
This one won’t be forgotten by talking about NBA Draft night -- and no Kentucky players wanted to discuss their draft status after the loss. This wasn’t losing to a North Carolina team that won the national title. This wasn't losing to an Indiana team that won the Big Ten. This wasn’t losing to a Wisconsin team with two first-round NBA picks.
This was an avoidable loss to the fourth-place team in the Big 12, a team some argued was the worst one still playing in the tournament.
“Had our chance to win,” Calipari said. “Didn’t play particularly well for us but still had a chance to win.”
Kentucky lost this game because not one of Calipari’s guys played his best basketball — and he didn’t coach his best basketball.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander missed eight of 10 shots, including the final three-pointer that banked off the rim. Turned it over five times and did not score from distance. Great for the last month, Gilgeous-Alexander looked like a freshman against the veteran Kansas State guards.
P.J. Washington rebounded like Dennis Rodman (15) but shot free throws like Shaquille O’Neal, taking 20 and missing a dozen.
Kevin Knox finished with 13 points and 8 boards, but never took over the game against smaller defenders.
Hamidou Diallo finished with more fouls (4) than points (2), assists (0) or steals (0).
Quade Green air-balled a three-pointer in the final 10 seconds when Kentucky could have tied the game with a two.
Calipari didn’t call a timeout as that Green possession broke down because he thought his guys had worked on a play that Kansas State wasn’t prepared to defend.
Kentucky thought it had another play primed to utilize Wenyen Gabriel on the final possession but Kansas State defended that one well, too.
“We thought it would be either Knox or Gabriel shooting a three,” said Weber, a guy Kansas State fans were howling about replacing a month ago.
“So we decided to give them a two and switch every screen on the perimeter so they couldn’t get anybody free for a three.”
Your move, coach Calipari.
Calipari owned his mistake. Had to. Took the hit for not calling the timeout.
“I come back to the big play for us was down two (60-58),” he said. “We were going to run a play to go weak side corner for a three. We end up not having it, throwing it to Quade.
“I was trying to get a timeout at that point. But that’s on me, that’s not on these kids. That was a choice I made.
“The last play was a curl. We were trying to pop Wenyen and it kind of got messed up.”
Kentucky managed only 64 possessions and scored .904 points on those possessions. That is a pace closer to the tempo Kansas State prefers, not the style that had worked for Kentucky during its five-game winning streak, when UK averaged close to 80 points per game.
Toss in 11 Kansas State steals that led to 15 Kentucky turnovers, along with 14 missed Kentucky free throws and nine Kansas State three-point shots, and it was enough to put Kansas State against Loyola in the most unlikely regional final I can remember.
And it was certainly enough to make Kentucky and Calipari lament failing to take advantage of the sweetest and most direct path to the Four Four they’ll ever have.
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