Kentucky’s Sweet 16 loss to Kansas State, Final Four failure is a missed opportunity

Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari reacts during the second half against the Kansas State Wildcats in the semifinals of the South regional of the 2018 NCAA Tournament at Philips Arena.

Uninspired. Embarrassing. Sad.

Pick a word to describe Kentucky’s upset loss to Kansas State in the Sweet 16 on Thursday night.

The best way to summarize it is by putting it bluntly: Kentucky blew it, big time.

The No. 5 Wildcats, the remaining best seed in the shattered South Region, had a red carpet rolled out to get to the Final Four — facing No. 9 seed Kansas State and, had they won, No. 11 seed Loyola-Chicago on Saturday. No. 1 Virginia was gone. No. 4 Arizona was out. And so was No. 2 Cincinnati. All these teams were a part of coach John Calipari’s overall complaint heading into the NCAAs about his team’s bracket fate by the selection committee.

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Calipari warned his players about overlooking Kansas State, and an argument could be made that this batch of freshmen didn’t heed their coach’s advice.

Kentucky didn’t want it as bad as Kansas State. There’s really no way around that. In the Wildcats’ Elite Eight exit last year, players De’Aaron Fox and Bam Adebayo sobbed in the locker room. That same passion wasn’t here with this group.

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So much is made up of veteran teams vs. Inexperienced teams. But the real difference was Kansas State imposed its defensive will. Kansas State has allowed 51 points a game, the fewest of any team left in the tournament.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who carried this team with 27 points in a second-round win against Buffalo, finished 2-for-10 shooting from the floor. The Wildcats shot 3-for-12 from beyond the arc.

P.J. Washington, who had several momentous plays, was 8-for-20 from the free-throw line. That stat alone speaks to Kentucky choking. He shoots makes half his free throws and Kentucky advances.

Calipari took part of the blame for the loss.

“I should have called that timeout late with 19 seconds to go,” he told reporters. “But we had worked on something and I thought we could catch them off-guard. (Kansas State’s) a veteran team. I should have called a timeout. I can’t put that on these guys. That’s right on my shoulders.”.

No matter who takes the blame, this was one of the most disappointing losses in the Calipari era at Kentucky.

That’s because of how good Kentucky had become.

Kentucky’s freshmen seemed to have blossomed over the last two weeks, winning the SEC tournament and looking like one of the national title favorites alongside Villanova and Duke. Calipari got this team to buy into a defense-first mindset and check their egos at the door while coming together as a unit. He’s done it multiple times over the years, but it’s always impressive to see the November-to-March maturation.

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Regardless of how Calipari tried to spin it in news conferences before the game on Thursday, anything less than a trip to San Antonio was an underachievement.