Last year, Kentucky blew a golden opportunity.
Even as a No. 5 seed, upsets left UK the highest seed among the four survivors in the NCAA Tournament’s South Region. No. 1 seed Virginia suffered that historic first-round loss to No. 16 UMBC. No. 4 seed Arizona was blitzed by Buffalo in the first round. No. 2 Cincinnati and No. 3 Tennessee had hit the exit ramp in the second round. That left No. 7 Nevada, No. 9 Kansas State and No. 11 Loyola of Chicago to join Kentucky in Cat-lanta. Surely, John Calipari’s club would breeze on to the Final Four.
Instead, the Cats went splat at the hands of Bruce Weber (yikes!) and Kansas State (double yikes!) in the Sweet 16. Sister Jean slipped her foot in Cinderella’s shoes and Loyola of Chicago punched a Final Four ticket. After the heartbreak of 2017 — losing to North Carolina on a last-second shot in the Elite Eight — 2018 was a bitter pill for Big Blue Nation to swallow.
Says here, that won’t happen this year. Says here that seeds, opponents, matchups, even officials, none of that matters. Says here this Kentucky team has a much better shot at making a Final Four run.
First, though, a disclaimer. Tuesday’s news that sophomore forward PJ Washington has been in a boot since Sunday is not the news you want to hear before your first NCAA Tournament game. UK says the measure is precautionary. If not, all bets are off as to just how far this team can go. If the boot is precautionary, I’m sticking with the belief UK is of Final Four caliber.
Why? Simply put, the Cats of 2018-19 are a better team than the 2017-18 version. They’re much better equipped to handle the obstacle course that is the Big Dance.
Remember, last season Calipari went with an all-freshman starting five of Kevin Knox, Nick Richards, Washington, Hamidou Diallo and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. True, Knox and Gilgeous-Alexander became NBA Draft lottery picks. And Diallo was recently seen literally jumping over Shaquille O’Neal to win the NBA Dunk Contest. But freshmen have a tendency to be freshmen. Even really good freshmen.
By Calipari’s standards, this year’s team is full of graybeards. Reid Travis has never played in an NCAA Tournament, but he is a graduate transfer, a mature four-year player. As sophomores, Washington and Richards have been through this before.
Also, this year’s team has a better bench. Last year’s subs: Wenyen Gabriel, Sacha Killeya-Jones and Quade Green. This year’s subs: Richards, EJ Montgomery, Immanuel Quickley and Jemarl Baker. I’ll take Montgomery and Richards over Killeya-Jones. Quickley can not only spell Ashton Hagans at the point, he was 3-for-3 from three-point range in the SEC Tournament.
The current Cats have more offensive options. While Calipari might not have player who will be drafted as high as Knox (ninth) or Gilgeous-Alexander (11th), his team this year doesn’t depend as heavily on two players for points. If Washington is option No. 1, freshman wings Keldon Johnson and Tyler Herro are not far behind. Each, in his own way, is capable of taking over a game. he current Cats are also better defensively. Check out Ken Pomeroy’s ocean of numbers. The 2017-18 Cats wound up 22nd in offensive efficiency. The 2018-19 Cats rank eighth.
There is one unexpected similarity. Last year at this time we were dealing with the Jarred Vanderbilt mystery. Out with a foot injury, then back, then out again, the talented freshman was a postseason question mark. Would he play? Would he not play? Given he might jeopardize his NBA future, did Vanderbilt even want to play? In the end, he never made it on to the floor.
Now, just when Travis is back from the knee sprained he suffered on Feb. 19, UK fans have the Washington/boot news to fret about. Is it a thing or is it nothing? If it’s a thing, without Washington UK will be lucky to match last year’s finish. If it’s nothing, these Cats are better-equipped than a year ago to do something special, such as reach the Final Four.