As the dust settles on the perfect season that wasn’t, we’re left wondering what went wrong for Kentucky. The Wildcats entered the Final Four having won 38 straight games, had a roster full of McDonald’s All-Americans and were seemingly unbeatable.
Wisconsin tamed the ‘Cats, 71-64, on Saturday, as Kentucky’s bid for a perfect season fell two wins shy of the summit.
“It just kind of ended,” Sports Illustrated senior writer Pete Thamel said on CBS Sports Radio’s The DA Show. “It was weird. There was no grand finale. It wasn’t a dagger. There were obviously big shots and everything, but it just kind of ended, and a couple of Kentucky players stormed off the court. It was certainly surreal, but I guess there was no definitive moment, if that makes sense. It just kind of happened.
“The feeling now, 24 hours later, is basically people were surprised, but if you really dig down, you shouldn’t have been,” Thamel continued. “This is a Kentucky team that wasn’t tested all year in the SEC, and I don’t think they got a ton better from January to March. Even looking at the Big Ten title game, Wisconsin (versus) Michigan State, to dig out of that hole and come back – it’s sort of an incremental process that comes with basketball. You’re tested and you build and you go. And I think Kentucky’s development as a team stagnated.”
The Wildcats didn’t play a single ranked opponent from December 28 to Mach 15. They beat four ranked teams – Kansas, Texas, North Carolina and Louisville – in November and December, but the SEC slate certainly didn’t do them any favors.
That may have hurt Kentucky on Saturday.
“You saw . . . the absence of organized offense for the last six, seven minutes of the game,” Thamel said. “I think Wisconsin held them on six straight possessions. Three of those were shot-clock violations. Certainly not John Calipari’s finest moment on the sideline.”
Indeed, Karl-Anthony Towns had another solid game for Kentucky: 16 points, nine rebounds, one assist, one steal and one block. And yet, the Wildcats seemed unable – or unwilling – to feed Towns the ball in the final minutes.
“That was where the game was lost – when Kentucky couldn’t get the ball inside,” Thamel said. “They were getting offensive rebounds, but they just couldn’t (get clean looks). The Harrison twins kind of tried to take over, it didn’t really work and that was your ball game.”
In the end, Kentucky was undoubtedly one of the best teams in college basketball this year. But the Wildcats did not belong in the best-team-of-all-time discussion.
“Ultimately, there were five, six really good teams in college basketball this year,” Thamel said. “The contention is basically if Kentucky was in the ACC, they would have lost a game or two. They might have lost in Durham (or Chapel Hill). There would have been two or three road games that were really difficult, and they didn’t have that type of challenge. I just think that stunted their development a little bit.”