KANSAS CITY, Mo. (WDRB) — Toss this one directly into the discard pile, the one that continues to add ugly bruises to John Calipari’s NCAA Tournament record every March.
It isn’t just that Calipari has been unable to win more than one national championship during his 10-season run at the University of Kentucky. I can give you the name of another Hall of Fame coach who exited the tournament Sunday with the three top prospects in the next NBA Draft. It happens.
The ugly part of Calipari’s NCAA Tournament history in Lexington is that his teams continue to stumble and fumble against teams they should have defeated.
West Virginia with the John Wall/DeMarcus Cousins team in 2010.
Connecticut with the Julius Randle and Harrison twins team in 2014.
Wisconsin with the 38-0 team in 2015.
Kansas State with the Kevin Knox/Shai Gilgeous-Alexander team last season.
Now this — Auburn 77, Kentucky 71 in overtime in the Midwest Regional final at the Sprint Center on Sunday afternoon.
“We got outplayed, got out-coached and still had a chance to win the game,” Calipari said.
Had more than a chance. Should have won the game. Better players. Healthier roster. Double-digit lead. Every edge a coach should want.
Rank them in any order you like. I’d put this one second (behind the Wisconsin debacle) and no worse than third (behind West Virginia) on Calipari's list of ugly NCAA Tournament exits.
“It’s definitely shocking,” said E.J. Montgomery, Kentucky’s freshman forward.
“It hurts,” said Keldon Johnson, another UK freshman. “It definitely hurts.”
In a season where I thought Calipari did some of his best work (yes, I remember Saturday’s column), he flat-lined on the bench against Bruce Pearl’s team in a game Kentucky was favored to by 4 1/2 in Las Vegas and by 7 with one analytics formula.
Except Kentucky had no answer for Auburn’s gritty, attacking guards. No consistent offensive game plan, especially in the second half, to take advantage of the absence of Auburn forward Chuma Okeke.
No ability to shake more than one three-point field goal from the UK offense in the final 25 minutes. No magic words to get his freshmen guards to calm and perform with the poise that Ashton Hagans, Tyler Herro and Immanuel Quickley played with against Wofford and Houston.
“They brought a different energy,” Travis said. “That’s on us for not matching it.”
“They just ended coming up with rebounds and loose balls toward the end of the game,” Herro said.
The Kentucky defensive game plan was to chase the Auburn guards off the three-point line. Kentucky accomplished that. Auburn made only seven shots from distance after the Tigers had made at least a dozen in eight straight games.
But the second part of the plan was to stop tiny Jared Harper and muscular Bryce Brown from getting to the basket.
Didn’t happen. Harper, the regional’s most outstanding player, and Brown combined for 50, 19 more than their average. They went right and kept going right, carrying the Tigers right into a national semifinal match with Virginia in Minneapolis next Saturday.
“That was an emphasis for us to take them off the (three-point) line,” Travis said. “Make them finish at the rim. Make them take tough twos.
“They were able to finish today. They got a little deeper than we wanted on those tough twos. Instead of mid-ranges, they were getting all the way to their right hand and finishing at the rim. For us, that was disappointing, because that was something we really worked was to try to take that away.”
So Kentucky misses its trip to the Final Four by losing to a team the Wildcats defeated twice as the Tigers finished fifth in the Southeastern Conference.
An Auburn team the Wildcats dismissed by 27 points the last time Kentucky saw the Tigers.
An Auburn team that had less than 40 hours to adjust and compensate for the loss of Chuma Okeke, the Tigers’ most dynamic inside player.
An Auburn team that usually throws in a stream of three-point shots but made only 7 of 23 against the Wildcats.
An injured, undersized five-seed taking out a more talented two-seed.
There are plenty of directions for finger-pointing. If Travis wanted to start by saying that he and his teammates failed to match Auburn’s feisty energy, that’s understandable.
Travis is a leader. He’ll probably be a corporate executive one day. Credit Travis for accepting responsibility. He played all but 45 seconds of this 45-minute tug-of-war but managed only five field-goal attempts. Not good enough.
Kentucky’s freshmen guards played like they had never played in a regional final elimination game. Hagans, Herro and Quickley were outscored by Auburn’s Brown and Harper, 50-20, and that’s with Harper and Brown making 5 of 13 shots from distance.
Hagans lost the ball seven times. Herro missed eight of 11 shots. Quickley took all six of his shots from distance and made one.
Won’t work. Won’t win.
Only PJ Washington saved the Wildcats from a more decisive defeat. Calipari did not start Washington, but he put him in the game after 4 minutes and 15 seconds.
Don’t look at the box score for any evidence that Washington had a sore left foot. He played close to 40 minutes, leading Kentucky with 28 points and 13 rebounds.
Washington needed a few more shots, even though he took 18. Travis absolutely needed more than his five field goal attempts, considering he only missed once.
With Okeke watching the first half from the Auburn hotel and the second half from a wheelchair tucked behind the Tigers’ bench, Kentucky had guys who should have punished Auburn around the glass.
Didn’t happen. Not enough. Especially not in the second half. Kentucky settled. That’s the way I’d define the Wildcats’ offense: They settled.
“I wanted this bad for myself but also my teammates,” Travis said. “It’s something we worked hard for all year to kind of see it end like that didn’t feel real.”
It was real all right, and it was a loss that went directly on the list of Calipari’s ugliest NCAA Tournament defeats.
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