- It seemed like Kentucky had a clear and easy path to the Elite Eight in a wide-open, upset-filled South Region, but No. 9 Kansas State found a way to win and advance to face No. 11 Loyola-Chicago.
ATLANTA — A red carpet stretching all the way from Phillips Arena to the Alamodome was laid out for Kentucky. The Wildcats had the most talent—by far—of any team left in the South Region. They were clicking. They’d won five in a row, starting with their first game in the SEC Tournament. They started five future NBA players and brought more off the bench. Judging strictly by the eye test, Kentucky should have waltzed through two games in Atlanta and headed to the Final Four, where the Wildcats might find opponents with more similar rosters. Given that, the fifth-seeded Wildcats’ 61-58 loss to ninth-seeded Kansas State in the Sweet 16 seems fairly shocking.
But the eye test doesn’t take into account a season’s worth of data. This was not a great Kentucky team. By Kentucky standards, it was just OK. The Wildcats finished fourth in the SEC. After a loss at Auburn on Valentine’s Day, they languished at 6-7 in SEC play. The following day, coach John Calipari asked fans on his radio show to direct their ire toward him instead of his youngest team ever. (Which, given Calipari’s rosters over the years, is really young.) Looking at what happened Thursday through that prism, it doesn’t seem so surprising at all. The team that finished fourth in the Big 12 beat the team that finished fourth in the SEC by three points. That fourth-place team from the SEC won the conference tournament and made it all the way to the Sweet 16, which seems like a fairly successful postseason given the middling results during the season.
The brain can process that information in print. Where it feels so much less logical is when the eyes look out on the court and see Kansas State—with its leading scorer (6’10” forward Dean Wade) out with an injury and three forwards (Xavier Sneed, Makol Mawien and Levi Stockard III) on the bench with five fouls—playing five guards against a Kentucky lineup that uses 6’9” Kevin Knox on the wing and only gets bigger inside the lane. “We were playing with 6'4" and under, and they're one of the biggest teams in the country,” Kansas State coach Bruce Weber said. “But we got big rebounds down the stretch, big stops.” Guard Barry Brown Jr. called it “probably the smallest lineup we’ve ever used,” but it was good enough to earn Kansas State a berth in the Elite Eight against No. 11-seed Loyola-Chicago on Saturday.
And they got a daring layup from the 6’3” Brown Jr. with 18.4 seconds remaining to break a 58-58 tie. Brown, who finished with 13 points, drove past 6’6” guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and then arced the ball over the outstretched hand of 6’7” P.J. Washington. The ball bounced off the backboard and through the net as Brown crashed into the goal standard. “Coach said someone make a play,” guard Cartier Diarra said. Somebody had to make a play, and he did that. He is one of our go-to guys. He has supreme confidence.”
The sequence that summed up Kentucky’s season came about three minutes earlier. Gilgeous-Alexander—one of the few Kentucky signees who wasn’t a McDonald’s All-American—had been Kentucky’s steadiest player all season. Gilgeous-Alexander (15 points, five rebounds and five assists) drove for a layup to give Kentucky a 55-54 lead with 4:04 remaining. The Wildcats got a stop, and then Gilgeous-Alexander was driving toward the basket again. If Kentucky could score, it would finally provide a little cushion against a Kansas State team that had run out to a 13-1 lead early and held on the rest of the way. But Gilgeous-Alexander didn’t reach the basket. He decided to kick out to a shooter—only he didn’t throw it to a shooter. He threw it to Diarra, who raced down the court for a layup.
Kentucky would take one more lead on a Washington layup, but Kansas State took it back with two Brown free throws. On the other end, Washington only made one of two free throws, forging the tie that Brown broke with his layup. Washington dominated everywhere except the line Thursday. He scored 18 points and grabbed 15 rebounds, but he went 8 of 20 from the line. “We lost. I didn't play good at all,” Washington said. “As you saw, I went 8 for 20 from the line. I feel like if I would have made at least half of those, we would have won the game.” Said Weber: “We had no answer for Washington inside. It was either foul him or not. We did."
Afterward, Washington and Knox covered their faces with towels as they walked to the postgame press conference. A glum Calipari chided himself for not calling timeout after Brown’s layup to calm his young team. That sequence led to a Quade Green airball that forced Kentucky to foul and allowed Kansas State to stretch the lead. Calipari still seemed stunned as he studied the stat sheet. “Shot 35% and won a basketball game,” Calipari said of Kansas State. “My hat’s off to them. I'm proud of my team. Had our chance to win, didn't play particularly well for us, but still had a chance to win.”
None of Kentucky’s likely NBA-bound players were willing to discuss future plans in the immediate aftermath of the loss. Those decisions likely will get announced sooner rather than later as Calipari shapes next year’s roster. Calipari has called this year his most rewarding season because his players grew so much along the way. Six weeks ago, the Wildcats might have been headed for the fate of the 2013 team, which lost to Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT. But the group came together, won the SEC Tournament, earned a respectable NCAA tournament seed and won two games in the Big Dance. But from the outside, the talent discrepancy between Kentucky and the other teams in Atlanta will always make Kentucky’s exit seem jarring.
“I’ll remember how we fought through a four-game losing streak and how close we got after that,” Kentucky sophomore Wenyen Gabriel said. “We weren’t really together at the beginning of the year and how we came together as a brotherhood is something I’ll never forget.”
For those outside the program, Kentucky losing in a region it should have rolled through will be the lasting memory of this season. At least until the next crop of McDonald’s All-Americans shows up at Big Blue Madness in October.
Meanwhile, the set of Wildcats who came to Atlanta under the radar will keep playing.
“You know, we've been picked eighth in the Big 12, finished fourth, and we saw the new seedings come out, 16th in the Sweet 16. So we felt disrespected all year,” said Kansas State’s Sneed, who scored a game-high 22. “We just came out here and proved people wrong.”