This is the penultimate postmortem of the season for Kentucky basketball. At some point in the next few days, we'll do a season postmortem and officially put this year in the books at A Sea of Blue. But for now, we'll be examining the events of last night with an eye on what went right and what went wrong.
Once again, I want to congratulate the Connecticut Huskies on a great victory and an excellent season. Nobody would have imagined that UConn would get to the final game, much less win it over the pre-season #1, but they did all that, and claimed their 4th NCAA tournament championship. Outstanding.
For Kentucky, this game had too many things go wrong to mention, and I suppose the Wildcats were due for a sub-par game. I don't want to take anything away from UConn, they played great defense, but Kentucky has faced better defensive teams in this tournament than the Huskies and performed well, so even though UConn deserves credit for great defense, statistically, it looks more like Kentucky played at least as poorly as UConn played well.
Having said that, I suppose it was inevitable for such a young team to eventually throw in a clunker, and combined with Connecticut's great guard play, the Wildcats just couldn't get out of their own way and combat a high-quality defensive effort at the same time. This game was reminiscent of the Kansas State contest in many ways.
I have explained over and over again that this team was very turnover-sensitive, and that the threshold of 20% turnovers was the danger zone. Kentucky turned the ball over 22% of the time.
Don't let the raw turnovers fool you, this was a low-possession game at only 60 possessions. 13 turnovers would have been okay in an up-and-down, 70-possession affair, but for a 60 possession game, it is poor, and ultimately, deadly.
Shooting their season average from the line, only 68%, would have put Kentucky within 1 point of the lead. Imagine how different the last two possessions would have looked like if Kentucky were within one.
Rebounding. This was a poor rebounding UConn team, Kentucky had them in all sorts of foul trouble, and yet we barely outrebounded them. UK had to win the rebounding battle significantly, and didn't.
Three point shooting looks worse than it was. Three or four of the misses were last-second desperation heaves at the end of the game. UK shot the ball fine from three when it counted.
Kentucky assisted on 61% of made baskets. That's got to be a near season-high.
The Wildcats allowed a staggering nine steals, and whenever you see that many, it means a lot of easy points for the opposition.
I thought Kentucky played very well defensively. They challenged a lot of shots and did about as good a job as they could given their youth and quickness disadvantage.
I think the Wildcats did not use their size advantage enough. We should have seen more post-ups by Randle and Johnson.
I wish John Calipari had gone to the zone earlier. I really think he needs to integrate the zone better into his defensive strategy going forward, it was by far the most effective defense Kentucky played all night, and I think we should have been in it a lot more.
As you know, I don't award game balls for losses. Game balls are for winners only.
James Young had a very good game offensively, and rebounded great. He didn't play well defensively, and his lapses were responsible for at least ten points. But without his offense, it would have been a lopsided defeat. And how could we live with ourselves if we didn't get to see this:
Julius Randle was not himself. I don't know what was wrong with him, but he was not himself. I saw him grimacing in warmups. I know he'd never use that as an excuse, but this was not the Randle of the last couple of games. But he did do a lot of good things, including get 4 assists and a couple of "hockey" assists. Only one offensive rebound? Not the Randle I know.
Andrew Harrison did a lot of good things out there, but turnovers were his problem, and they have been all season. Still, he did good. He had 3 steals, and in my judgment book, that makes up for three turnovers.
Aaron Harrison played just okay. His 3-point shooting went astray, and he had way too many turnovers. Again, though, two steals make up for a couple.
Dakari Johnson just keeps chugging along.. He didn't shoot well and missed about three point-blank layups and most of his free throws, but he worked really hard, got a couple of blocks and a steal. I'd expect more than four rebounds out of him in 25 minutes, though.
Alex Poythress continues to be amazing. He did so many good things out there defensively, land rebounded well. He also shot it well from inside, but missed everything outside of point-blank, even unguarded 15-footers.
Dominque Hawkins saw a lot of time, and did some really good things defending those UConn guards. But he missed free throws, just like everybody but James Young.
Marcus Lee played, but didn't impact the score sheet. I thought he did okay defensively.
Tying it all up
Again, I don't want to take credit away from UConn's defense, but the reality is that Kentucky simply didn't play well offensively. Randle was not himself, the UK guards turned the ball over way too many times, and Kentucky did not rebound the basketball the way they normally do. Some of that was caused by Connecticut's perimeter orientation, but I thought the Wildcats overall lacked energy, particularly in the first half.
Give this team credit, though — they never quit. For a bunch of freshmen to make comeback after comeback on the biggest stage in college basketball in as impressive as anything I've ever seen, and I am proud of these young men.
We can always play the "what if" game when it comes to Willie Cauley-Stein, but that's not really productive. I'm just sorry Willie couldn't participate in something that every college player wants to get a shot at. But injuries are part of the game, and that's just something you have to learn to live with, player, fan, or coach.
This was a great post-season for Kentucky, although the fairy tale ending was denied to us. That's just something we'll have to live with, and we'll just have to wait a little longer for NCAA Tournament championship #9. But three Final Fours, two NCAA Tournament finals and one championship is a pretty darn good record in the last four years. Some folks would call that a dynasty (I'm looking at you, Rick Pitino), but here at Kentucky, I think we'll just settle for calling it a nice run so far. If Kentucky wins it next season, we might consider using the D-word.
So now, let's wrap all this up by giving a hearty kudos to a team that went from pre-season favorite, to unranked, to the top of the mountain. They didn't get to plant their flag there, but they reached it, which is more than you can say about 349 other Division I basketball schools. I guess, in the end, it is somewhat fitting for a team that had the struggles this one had for the brass ring to be just out of reach.