There’s not a more deflating feeling for the Big Blue Nation than when the Wildcats are eliminated from the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament ... until now.
On Thursday, the NCAA released a statement that continued to send shockwaves throughout the sporting world, saying that the NCAA Tournament for men’s and women’s basketball would be canceled, hours after all of the major men’s basketball conference tournaments canceled due to concerns over the COVID-19 virus spreading across the globe.
The decision came on the heels of the NBA suspending their season, MLB postponing spring training and the start of their season by a couple weeks, MLS postponing their season that just got going and the NHL postponing their season until further notice, along with the Coronavirus spreading all through Europe, putting soccer matches across all leagues and competitions on hold.
It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that this is one of the most bizarre and strangest spans in the history of sports and for the Kentucky basketball program, like others heading into postseason play during one of the calendar’s best months, it couldn’t have come at a worst time.
“This wasn’t anybody’s doing,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said during a phone interview with ESPN’s Rece Davis and Scott Van Pelt on Thursday evening.
“But again, forget about all that. How about (the) kids? I talk about my team, and I had to tell them, I’m really going to miss this team. I think we could’ve won a national title. I think we had a bunch of guys that really liked each other. We didn’t have one bad practice all year. Not one. The last teams that have done that for me won the national title or were in the final game. They came everyday to get better. Every player on this team got better.
“Fate intervened, but they deserved to keep playing. And you know what? Stuff happens. My thing to them, we’re going to have individual meetings (on Friday). We’ll deal with each individual player. Here’s what’s sad in this, and I hope our fans take on this team. If we would’ve been in the Final Four, won a national title, this may have been their most favorite team that I’ve coached here in 11 years. But they didn’t get a chance to be that team. They won their league by three games. Went on the road and won the last one, which was a crazy, crazy game. But they don’t have a chance to live that last moment, whether you’re going to win or lose, which will be with them the rest of their life. That’s, for me, the hard thing to swallow.”
(You can watch Calipari’s phone interview in full here.)
ESPN interviewed a number of coaches throughout the day on Thursday, including Gonzaga’s Mark Few, Villanova’s Jay Wright, South Carolina women’s coach Dawn Staley and Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, but nobody spoke more highly of their team and their chances heading into the tournament than Calipari did.
You could truly sense the disappointment and agony from Calipari for his players after the cancellation of arguably the best singular event on the sports calendar every season, plus not being able to play in virtually a home crowd in Nashville for a weekend this week to win the SEC crown outright as regular season and tournament champions.
The SEC did award Kentucky the automatic NCAA Tournament bid as the SEC’s regular season title-winners in their official tournament cancellation statement, but not a single person following what was happening across the country believed the tournament would actually be played. The writing was on the wall and for many of us, it wasn’t worth the read because we knew what it said.
Today’s news has stunned all of us. It’s just now sinking in for me. As disappointed as we all are, this was the right decision for the health of our nation.— John Calipari (@UKCoachCalipari) March 13, 2020
As for the players themselves, it’s been quite a ride this season.
Tyrese Maxey got the party started with a bang against Michigan State in New York, followed by the stunning defeat at the hands of Evansville. There were the two losses in both games out in Las Vegas that made everyone question how good this team actually was or could be.
Then, the Battle of the Bluegrass turned the tide on the entire season, as the Cats won an overtime thriller over rival Louisville, followed by wins in 16 of their final 19 games to sit at 26-5 and champions of the SEC for the 49th time in school history.
Just like their season itself, the Cats continued to grow and progress as a unit, even if some shaky situations arose, like the loss at Auburn to open February where the Tigers shot 44 free throws. The nine-point halftime deficit at Vanderbilt was certainly no gimme. The sluggish shooting against Ole Miss almost costed the Cats another shocking home defeat.
But of course, who could forget the Cats roaring back from an 18-point deficit after Ashton Hagans missed the Florida trip due to “personal reasons” just days after reports circulated that he and Calipari got into a spat on the bench during a 17-point collapse against Tennessee and it appeared Calipari had later been ejected by Doug Shows?
Like Calipari said on ESPN, it’s nobody’s fault that there’s no postseason basketball (or an entire NCAA spring season either). This was in the interest of safety for not only players, coaches and officials, but for fans, family members, students, media members and anyone in large sporting settings.
It’s just a disappointing feeling because March is like Christmas for Big Blue Nation. This is where the games truly matter, memories are made and legacies are built. The scene now shifts to who will return for another go-around in Lexington. Calipari noted on ESPN that “four or five guys” are expected to enter their names into the 2020 NBA Draft process.
Maxey’s a projected lottery pick no matter what mock draft you look at. Hagans had a rough finish to what started out as a fantastic sophomore campaign. EJ Montgomery certainly could have value at the next level. Nick Richards may have improved as much as anyone in college basketball this season and all of this isn’t even including SEC Player of the Year Immanuel Quickley.
After individual meetings take place on Friday, we might have at least a clear picture on that, even if the future of college athletics and sports themselves looks murky at the moment.
But, to paraphrase a famous wrestler that’s always confused for a famous musician, the only thing that’s for sure is nothing’s for sure.