For the last few days, I've spent a lot of time reflecting on the men's basketball season that was. As I know it is for all of you, shaking the disappointment of the season ending two wins shy of where we all wanted it to end hasn't been easy. But as the days have passed, it's become easier to remember exactly how special this journey has been.
As I wrote before the Final Four, it was an incredible group of young men that took us on this journey. When they came together before the Big Blue Bahamas tour, we all knew the talent and depth they possessed. Very quickly, it became clear they were intent on fully realizing their potential and that John Calipari was the coach to get them there.
Early in the season, they performed on the biggest of stages. They were dominant against Kansas and UCLA, showing the power of inexhaustible energy when it's mixed with the pure joy this team constantly showed in playing together. They handled opponents bringing every conceivable game plan to beat them, demonstrating intelligence and awareness in adjusting to various styles of play.
Seemingly every game, different players stepped up and took the reins. One game Andrew Harrison would stand out, the next Tyler Ulis. Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns didn't care whether they had two points or 21 even though they were both possible lottery picks, so long as the team was succeeding. Eight players led us in scoring in our first seven games, and it never seemed to matter to any of them, signaling the kind of selflessness and caring for one another that would last the season.
That caring, unfortunately, underwent its toughest test of the season when Alex Poythress went down with a season-ending knee injury. The compassion they showed for Alex immediately afterward, at the North Carolina game later that week and throughout the season, was a powerful example of what it means to be a teammate and truly a pleasure to witness.
In spite of losing Alex - a steadying veteran presence off the floor and game-changing player on it - they marched on. They kept their composure in some of the most hostile road environments I have ever seen firsthand, surviving tough tests at Louisville and throughout Southeastern Conference play. All the while, the pressure intensified as the calendar reached January, February and March and their record remained unblemished.
Unquestionably, Kentucky was the biggest story in college basketball this season. The spotlight is always bright here, but I have never seen anything quite like what this team faced. They were dissected and analyzed from every possible angle, with experts breaking down how they could be beaten and wondering whether they would be able to stay together. They fielded question after question in facing an unprecedented media blitz, never saying a word to start even the smallest controversy.
The clutter, as Coach Cal predicted it would be, was everywhere, but they tuned it out under his leadership. In doing so, they gave us some unforgettable moments. They played overtime games and rallied from late deficits, always finding ways to win with clutch plays on offense and some of the best defense I've ever seen. They won in dominant fashion too, creating some of my favorite moments when they cheered as the third platoon closed out the final moments of big wins.
All the while, they represented our athletics department, school and state in a way that made us all proud. With incredible demands placed on their time, they remained dedicated students and combined for a grade-point average of 3.129 in the fall. Just as impressively, these young men recognized the impact their high profile allowed them to make on the lives of others and embraced it. For every story like Marcus Lee visiting a sick child in the hospital that comes out publicly, there are a dozen more that happen without anyone ever knowing.
As the regular season closed and they remained unbeaten, we celebrated an SEC championship. As they won the SEC Tournament with Nashville overtaken by the Big Blue Nation, we did the same. All the while, they kept their ultimate goal of a national championship at the front of their minds. In the NCAA Tournament, they were able to shift their attention fully to their pursuit of that goal.
In front of huge UK crowds in Louisville, they advanced past Hampton and won a physical battle against Cincinnati. Moving to Cleveland, they overwhelmed West Virginia and once again showed their will to win against an excellent Notre Dame team. In winning the Midwest Region, they gave Coach Cal his fourth Final Four trip in five seasons and made him one of three coaches in NCAA history to earn that distinction. Truly, he has been responsible for one of the greatest runs in our program's illustrious history and I can't say often enough how happy I am that John is our coach.
Against Wisconsin, the latest Final Four trip and the undefeated season ended. I won't go into detail about the game itself because it still hurts, but I do want to talk about what happened afterward.
Speaking from my perspective, the end came before I could even process it. One moment we were up four, the next Wisconsin was celebrating. Everything our players had worked for all season was over in a blink. The emotions were overwhelming for me, and I wasn't even between the lines. I cannot imagine what that must have been like for the players who had shouldered a heavy burden all season long. Doing so at age 18-22 is even more difficult to fathom.
The actions of some of our players in the aftermath of the game were not acceptable and have been addressed internally. As a family, we keep matters like this in house and I am proud of the way John runs our program. These things remain inexcusable, but they came in the heat of the moment and do not reflect the true character of our players.
But just as we learned valuable lessons in unselfishness from the successes of this team, we learn lessons in forgiveness and how to respond to adversity from the way the season ended. These lessons apply whether you are a fan supporting this university, a player returning for next season or going on to the NBA, or me as an athletics director.
Standing on the pedestal afforded by being at Kentucky comes with privileges, there's no doubt. We enjoy the best fan support in the country and great facilities and resources that give us the opportunity to compete for championships annually. Scrutiny, however, accompanies all this. Even after doing the right thing for six months, a faction will quickly pounce on a split-second mistake. For this reason, we must be constantly vigilant. Missteps, however, are inevitable. We must be aware of that fact, able to respond in a positive way and able to forgive those missteps when others make them. As Coach Cal says, we are not machines.
In closing, I refuse to let a single bad night take away from everything this team accomplished both on and off the floor this season. These players have given a great deal not only to the fans that followed them, but to the game of basketball. I believe history will reflect that.
With Coach Cal leading us, our program has a bright future. Before we move into it, let's take one more moment to celebrate the season we all just had the honor of being a part of and thank the players and coaches who made it possible.
2014 starter Patrick Towles is competing with Drew Barker for the quarterback job this spring. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
For the third time in as many Kentucky seasons, Mark Stoops is leading his team through spring practice without an officially named starter at quarterback.
Redshirt junior Patrick Towles and redshirt freshmen Drew Barker are splitting time at the position with no clear leader yet emerging. Stoops understands how that may be perceived by some, but he doesn't agree.
"I know the old adage that if you have two you don't have any, but I don't believe that," Stoops said.
After Reese Phillips suffered an injury to his Achilles tendon this winter, Towles and Barker became the only healthy quarterbacks on campus for spring practice. The resulting battle, new offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson says, has been good for both.
"To me if you've got one guy playing really good and one guy not then it's not making anybody better," Dawson said. "I think that the key to those guys right now, and both of them go out and one day one of them might be a little better, the other day the new one might be a little better but they're pushing each other. So, that's the best part of it."
It's familiar territory for Towles and Barker, who both competed for the starting job in 2014. Towles would of course win out and show flashes of brilliance in leading UK to a five-win season, an improvement from a 2-10 mark in Stoops' first season.
Towles started all 12 games, completing 57.3 percent of his passes for 2,718 yards and 14 touchdowns and adding 303 yards and six touchdowns on the ground. His coaches have said his experience does give him a leg up, but by no means makes him a lock to beat out Barker. It's a challenge he embraces.
"I've been in a competition since I got here," Towles said. "I'm not new to this at all and I'm going to go out there and worry about me. I can't worry about what any other quarterback's doing. I can help when I feel like I can teach a little bit, but I'm worried about how I play and how the guys play when I'm in there."
Barker is doing the same.
The highly touted Burlington, Ky., native redshirted last season after Towles won the job, taking the year to adjust to college life. His adjustment has been marked by two off-field incidents that have been addressed and addressed again by his coaches.
"He's a good kid that made some mistakes, and he's got to go out there and be consistent on the field and off the field," Stoops said. "He knows that. I like him, but what I like about him right now: He's just going about his business, trying to be the best quarterback he can be, take care of himself off the field. So far so good."
That doesn't mean every day is perfect.
"There's good and bad and there is every day," Stoops said after UK's 11th practice of the spring on Wednesday. "There's days when one or the other does separate himself, but not consistently, not every day. As I said throughout the spring and I saw it again today, we're improving at that position. Both guys are improving."
Improving and taking hold of the job are two different things, though it seems unlikely a decision on a starter is forthcoming based on what Stoops and Dawson are saying.
"It doesn't matter to the point to where I'm going to sit here and I'm stressing about making a decision, because we don't play Saturday," Dawson said. "So that doesn't matter to mean. I mean I'm pleased with where both of them are at. Obviously both of them do some things that are bad at times, but those things are slowly getting less and less."
The Wildcats might not be playing this weekend, but they will hold an open scrimmage at noon on Saturday at Nutter Training Center. The scrimmage will give the staff a chance to evaluate Towles and Barker in a live setting, but it's by no means a be-all, end-all situation.
"It's important, but you're not going to win a job in one day," Towles said. "It's a whole body of work kind of thing and I feel confident about my body of work and I feel confident going forward."
DeMarcus Cousins | Houston Rockets: 115, Sacramento Kings: 111 | April 1, 2015 After missing Sacramento's contest with the Memphis Grizzlies on March 30, "Boogie" Cousins bounced back with his second-career triple-double on April 1 in Houston. The fifth-year pro posted 24 points, 21 rebounds, 10 assists, six blocks and three steals in a Kings comeback effort that ultimately fell short.
Cats in the Spotlight
Eric Bledsoe | #2 PG | Phoenix Suns (39-38) Highlighted by an 18-point, 11-assist showing in a 107-106 losing effort to the Golden State Warriors on April 2, Bledsoe averaged 15.3 points and 7.0 assists in four games last week. The Suns defeated the Utah Jazz 87-85 on Saturday, but fell to the Warriors, the Portland Trail Blazers, and the Oklahoma City Thunder in Phoenix's three prior matchups.
DeMarcus Cousins | #15 C | Sacramento Kings (26-49) Following last Wednesday's triple-double effort in a loss to Terrence Jones' Rockets, Cousins recorded a second consecutive triple-double on Friday when he met Anthony Davis' New Orleans Pelicans. The Alabama native finished with 24 points, 20 rebounds, 13 assists, four blocks, and a steal. However, Davis walked away with the 101-95 victory.
Anthony Davis | #23 PF | New Orleans Pelicans (41-35) Davis and the Pels finished the week with three consecutive wins, followed by a loss on Saturday in Portland. Davis averaged 21.2 points, 8.8 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 2.8 blocks and 1.5 steals over the four-game stretch.
Enes Kanter | #34 C | Oklahoma City Thunder (42-34) Kanter started out the week with a quiet 11 points and nine rebounds in the Thunder's sole win over the Suns. However, despite 27.0 points and 16.5 rebounds from Kanter in Oklahoma City's next two contests, OKC dropped two straight at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks and the Grizzlies, respectively. Nerlens Noel | #4 C | Philadelphia 76ers (18-59) Noel's week consisted of three straight double-digit rebounding performances, including two consecutive double-doubles. Noel averaged 13.7 points and 11.7 rebounds over Philly's first three games, but ended his week early with a cut on his right eyelid during the second quarter of Saturday's contest with the Charlotte Hornets. The Sixers concluded the stretch with a 0-4 record.
John Wall | #2 PG | Washington Wizards (44-33) With three wins and three double-doubles from Wall in four Wizards games, the former 2010 SEC Player of the Year averaged 15.5 points, 14.8 assists and 5.0 rebounds last week. Washington lost to the red-hot Rockets on March 29, but defeated the 76ers on April 1, the New York Knicks on April 3, and the Grizzlies on April 4.
John Calipari speaks after his Hall of Fame election was announced on Monday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS - John Calipari may have wanted a morning to decompress, some time to himself after a heartbreaking, season-ending defeat to Wisconsin on Saturday night.
He wouldn't allow it. He owed Sunday morning to his players.
"I met each individual player the next morning, because when our season ends it becomes about them," John Calipari said. "Our season ended that night, so the next morning I had individual meetings."
The agenda for the meetings, as Kentucky fans know by now, covered the decisions his players will make in the coming weeks regarding the NBA Draft. The meetings were the first of two five-minute meetings Calipari will have with the players who will think about making the jump to the pros.
"There's not going to be any brainwashing, forcing, pushing either in or out," Calipari said. "I want each kid to make a decision for themselves. I did tell a couple of the kids that it's a man's league; it's not a child's league. You can be physically ready (but) if you're not ready for a man's league, you need to come back. But that's your choice."
In the 30 minutes he spent with the media after the announcement of his election to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Coach Cal said seven players are "considering their options." Piecing together everything he said, the seven are Willie Cauley-Stein, the Harrison twins, Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker, Trey Lyles andDakari Johnson.
"We will get information from probably 20-25 NBA GMs," Calipari said. "We'll then put their families in touch directly with the NBA. If they want my opinion, I'll give it. If they don't, I won't."
Cauley-Stein likely won't need Calipari's opinion. The junior and projected top-10 pick said after UK's Final Four loss he had "probably" played his last game in a Kentucky uniform and that "it's time to take another step." Calipari said nothing Monday to suggest Cauley-Stein's thinking had changed.
Towns, meanwhile, stopped short of making his intentions known. The freshman, however, is a contender to be the top overall pick in June's draft. Calipari wouldn't say unequivocally he should earn that distinction and join John Wall and Anthony Davis as the third player he's coached to be the No. 1 pick, but he did have plenty of good things to say about Towns.
"I'll say this is what he is: He's one of the greatest kids, really intelligent, really a smart kid, will make free throws, can play pick-and-roll defense, guard, block shots, and he's going to be a little bit like (a LaMarcus) Aldridge," Calipari said.
Aaron and Andrew Harrison, meanwhile, have more uncertain draft prospects. Both ESPN and Draft Express peg the two twins out of the first round, but Coach Cal believes they would work their way there if they did declare.
"If they're not first-rounders, which I believe they will be when you get the workouts and the interviews and you see their size and their athleticism and all that - when you meet them and say, 'Those are two of the greatest kids; where did all this other stuff come from? Where's this narrative? It's not true,' " Calipari said. "And then I think what'll happen is they'll both be in the first round. But even if they're not, it'll be shortly thereafter."
Lyles and Booker, meanwhile, face choices between returning for promising sophomore seasons or the draft, where both are expected to be selected in the middle of the first round, while Calipari said Alex Poythress' injury makes him likely to return. Johnson is a possible late first-round pick, making the 7-footer's decision an interesting one as well.
"What if Dakari's the 25th pick of the draft?" Calipari said. "I'm not going to say, 'You should stay.' See, the worst thing for me is to be in that position and try to influence a kid because of what's right for me."
That's why Coach Cal will provide the information, give his opinion if asked and stand back.
"There's no reason to hold off if you know what you're doing," Calipari said. "Just say and let's move. And then now my job shifts from that to making sure we bring in people to help them interview, that they start training, that they get on the track - we help them. And then the other thing is now I'm their PR machine. That's why I said my season doesn't end until June 28."
While he's serving as the PR machine for his recently departed pupils, he'll be putting the finishing touches on his next talented crop of recruits. Calipari said he expects to lose a minimum of five players to the draft, meaning he's likely to look to add to a 2015 class that currently features three signees.
That means there's work ahead.
"I need to get through the next month and I know I can do it," Calipari said. "I'll go one step at a time, sleep as much as I can sleep, get done what we gotta get done, and then I can step off the gas. But it's what - if you do this and you're about letting these kids make their own decisions, you're in this boat every year."
INDIANAPOLIS - On April 1, 2009, John Calipari was introduced as the new head coach of the Kentucky men's basketball team. If he hadn't, he says what happened to him April 6, 2015 may not have.
Six years and five days after Coach Cal had been named the new UK head coach, he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, becoming just the sixth active head coach in the hall.
"I don't know if Dr. (Lee) Todd and Mitch (Barnhart) didn't come to me and say, 'Hey, let's talk about this Kentucky job,' if this happens," Coach Cal said. "If I'm not at Kentucky, I'm not sure it happens. Maybe it does, I don't know."
It wasn't meant to be a knock on his previous schools of Memphis or UMass, it was just that Coach Cal always wanted to coach at a premier program such as UK.
Calipari has certainly made his opportunity at Kentucky count. The 56-year-old won the won the 2012 national championship, has taken the Cats to four Final Fours in the last five years and has posted the best winning percentage over a coach's first six seasons (.832) in school history.
"I always wanted to have a job like the other guys," Coach Cal said. "...It's not that I had any disrespect for Massachusetts or Memphis. I loved those places. I loved those jobs. But you were at the little table. You weren't at the big table. You never got to carve the turkey. You had plastics forks and plates and that's what it was. But I always said, 'I wonder what would happen if I got one of those jobs.' You know, guys that have had those jobs 20 and 30 years. I was 50 and had been coaching for 20-some years when I got the Kentucky job."
Another big moment in Cal's career that ultimately led him to the hall of fame: failing in the NBA.
After a successful run as head coach at UMass, Coach Cal tried his hand at the NBA where he went 72-112 with the New Jersey Nets before he was fired 20 games into this third season. What he learned at the next level, though, has helped him in better guiding college student-athletes to the next stage of their own careers and lives. And if he had to get fired for that to happen, Coach Cal says, then it was all worth it.
"I would not trade that time for anything, because it made me a better coach and it better prepared me to teach the kids that I have now what it takes to be in that league," Coach Cal said. "Maybe that's why it happened. Alright, we know you're going to have these kids so get up here. And we're going to fire you, but at least you know what it takes for those kids. I don't know. We look back on - and I'll say it again, if I don't get hired by Kentucky, am I sitting here? Maybe. Doubt it, but maybe. Why did I go to the NBA? Maybe - how many of these kids have we prepared for that? You just don't know. You look back - the only thing I'm going to say, this that has happened for me gives me another platform to help kids and families. Even more of a platform to help them." Handling UK's first, only loss
Kentucky lost just one game all season. It just so happened to unfortunately be its last game of the season.
After losing to Wisconsin 71-64 in the Final Four on Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium, Coach Cal joked that he's lucky the hotel the team was staying at didn't have windows that could open in his room. In its quest to win Kentucky its ninth national championship and become the first school in 39 years to go undefeated, the Wildcats fell just two games shy of their goal, something Calipari never imagined.
"What I'm trying to do is laugh and smile and enjoy myself so I don't cry, because it was devastating," Coach Cal said. "I thought we were going 40-0. Never entered my mind that we would lose."
In the brief time since that game, Coach Cal says he has replayed the game in his head, but said he never watches the final game of the season in which he loses, nor will he watch the championship game Monday night between Duke and Wisconsin.
"I will tell you that I wish I had a few more answers how to post the ball," Calipari said. "I don't know. I refuse to watch the last game tape so I won't watch it, but I was begging, throw it - we were trying to do what we did against Notre Dame. Now maybe they fought us harder than we fought them to do it, but then that's on me to figure out how do you get Karl the ball, not only to score, but to pass out of. There's just so many - it's so raw right now. But I won't ever watch the tape."
After fighting back from an eight-point deficit earlier in the second half to take a four-point lead with less than five minutes to play, many have said Kentucky tried to slow the game down in order to take more time off the clock. The end result was that UK had three shot-clock violations in the closing minutes and went 5:40 without scoring. Being the players-first coach that he is, Coach Cal took the blame for how the Cats closed against the Badgers.
"I will say this, if they want to blame me for the loss, I agree," Calipari said. "Don't blame these kids. If I slowed it down, I didn't do it, Cal kicked this game, then I can live with that. I'm fine. That would make me happy."
Another aspect that helped Calipari get over Saturday's loss was looking over to the other bench and seeing his friend Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan, whose Badgers were defeated in the 2014 Final Four by the Cats in on a game winning 3-pointer with 5.7 seconds left.
"Somebody says, how did you get over the stuff last night?" Coach Cal said. "Because Bo had to walk off that floor last year like I did, and I have to respect that. How did he feel last year? Just like I felt this year."
Development of young people still most special part of Calipari's career
The only way to be elected into the hall of fame is to have had one special career. For Coach Cal, the most special part isn't that he's won a national championship or been to six Final Fours. It isn't the fact that he's the only head coach to win 38 games in a single season, that he's done that three times in his illustrious career, or that he became the first coach to ever win the first 38 games in a season. Instead, he said it's seeing the development of the young people that go through his program.
"Let me just say this, what I told the kids after the game, 'We lost guys, and you should be hurting, but every one of you helped yourself this season. You got better. Every player improved their position and abilities, and grew, and learned to be selfless, learned to be a great teammate,' " Coach Cal said. "And they're all in a position they would not have been in if they didn't share and give up. And I told them history, you may not have gone 40-0, history will talk about this team and what they gave up for each other, and it won't be taken away. Thirty-eight wins to start a season ... I got a few more tries."
Now, with "hall of famer" beside his name, Calipari said similar to when the Cats won the national championship in 2012, it's time to move on and continue to be about his players.
"Let's leverage all this stuff to do good," Coach Cal said. "It's not a relief, it's just I'm proud, surreal, dumbfounded, but at the end of the day, I'm truly appreciative and blessed that this happened, and now we move on."
Cal to the NBA?
In addition to wondering about whether several of Kentucky's star players will leave school early to put their name in the NBA Draft, many members of the Big Blue Nation have also worried about whether Coach Cal, himself, would explore the NBA waters. The big question in regards to that is how much of a desire he has to prove himself in the NBA.
"I don't," Calipari said. "I have one question, so you understand, and I went through some things last year, and I had a simple question for an owner: The impact I have on these young people, the impact to help change their families lives, the impact I have in the seat I'm in at Kentucky to move people in a positive way, can I have that in the NBA? Where do I get the satisfaction from? What do we do that has an impact on the community, has an impact on people, or am I just coaching to try to help you make more money and win a championship? Tell me how, because I'm at a stage in my life, that's not what moves me."
Willie Cauley-Stein guards Frank Kaminsky. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS - Willie Cauley-Stein has always done things his own way, so it's no surprise he handled talk of his future on his own terms Saturday night.
Bypassing the usual "I'm not thinking about that yet" response to inevitable questions about his upcoming stay-or-go decision, Cauley-Stein revealed his decision is already close to made.
Asked whether the junior had just played his final game in a Kentucky uniform in the Wildcats' Final Four loss to Wisconsin, he answered "probably."
"It's time to take another step," Cauley-Stein said. "I mean, obviously I'm not a hundred percent on it, but I'm pretty sure I know what I want to do. I have to talk to a couple more people, but that probably was my last game here."
Cauley-Stein is projected as a top-10 pick by both ESPN and Draft Express, a designation he shares with potential top overall choice Karl-Anthony Towns. Towns, however, wasn't willing to join his fellow forward in addressing the specifics of the decision he's now facing.
"I can't tell you," Towns said. "Right now I'm just - I have no thoughts about that. I just want to be with my teammates - just be with them. That's really it."
With UK's deep and talented roster, as many as 10 players could consider entering the NBA Draft. None besides Cauley-Stein, however, is entertaining the talk just yet.
"Like I said, I haven't thought about it," Devin Booker said. "As of now, I'm getting ready for my sophomore season. I'll sit down with my family and just come to a decision."
"In a couple weeks I'll probably make up my mind, but I'm just worried about my guys on my team right now," Andrew Harrison said.
Andrew Harrison and his twin brother have already been through the decision-making process once, electing to stay for their sophomore season. Based on that experience, they know they need time and space.
"Just have to get away from this," Aaron Harrison said. "Can't really let this affect you because you can't make the right decision when there's emotion involved."
Besides, the Cats have another priority in mind.
"It doesn't even matter right now," Marcus Lee said. "That's the least of our worries right now. Right now being our first and only loss, we're going back home and getting in school, getting caught up on school and being a regular student again."
Once they settle back in, decisions will have to be made.
"I don't know yet," Ulis said. "A lot of guys, like you said, have an opportunity to (either) go pro, (or) stay. For me, hopefully, some people stay. You just have to let them live their dream."
That's what Cauley-Stein now plans to do, though he'll pursue an NBA career having missed on the national championship he came back to win as a junior. To make matters worse, the fact that he only managed two points, five rebounds and two blocks in his 33 minutes of his final college game will weigh on his mind.
"I mean, that's going to probably eat at me for the rest of my life, just to know that I have so much more that I could have given and changed the outcome of the game," Cauley-Stein said. "But I just didn't do it and that's probably going to kill me on the inside."
If this season is any indication, Cauley-Stein will only use that feeling as fuel for that next step. The same goes for his teammates, whether they join him in declaring for the draft or elect to stay and pursue the championship that eluded them.
"We try to teach these kids to learn from every opportunity that they're given," assistant coach John Robic said. "This is just another one of those. How to face it, they've been very good through the entire season. Never really stuck their chest out. They were the same kids, same person, same team. They worked their tails off for us and couldn't ask for more from these guys."
UK's season ended two wins shy of a national championship on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS - For the first time since April 7, 2014, when the final horn sounded the Kentucky Wildcats were not celebrating a victory.
For the first time all season, it was Kentucky that faltered down the stretch as the opponent surged, and for the first time all season Kentucky (38-1) was on the losing side of a game, falling to Wisconsin 71-64.
"Could not be more proud of this group of young people," UK head coach John Calipari said. "What they did all year, just took us all on a ride, our staff, our school, our state. Took us on a ride. We all wanted to win those last two. These kids wanted to win it in the worst way."
It was a season to remember, but more specifically, it was a team to remember. Nine McDonald's All-Americans bought in, put the team and their teammates before themselves, sacrificed, gave back and showed what hard work and a selfless attitude can accomplish.
After the game, players spoke about the heartache of defeat in a somber locker room reminiscent of a funeral visitation, and looked back on the bond they shared throughout a historic season.
"The journey that we made with these guys right here--I know everybody says that they love their teammates but we really are like brothers," sophomore Andrew Harrison said.
"It's the best team I've ever been a part of," freshman guard Devin Booker said. "Best guys I've ever been a part of. Best coaching staff."
"I think I'll just remember how much we love each other," freshman forward Karl-Anthony Towns said. "We really love each other a lot. I think it's our love that keeps us so together, even in this hard time. It's hard. It's hard to think right now, but we just love each other so much. That's what I'm going to take away: how close we really are as a family, and how people really don't understand how close we really are. Like brothers. How we almost always do everything together, no matter what."
Despite the loss, the Wildcats still made history in a number of ways. Their 38 wins are tied for the most wins in college basketball history, and their 38-game winning streak is the longest ever to open a season. The Cats became the first team from a power conference to enter the postseason undefeated since Indiana in 1976.
They faced adversity, rallying from late deficits in each of their first two Southeastern Conference games to ultimately win in overtime. They also rallied late on the road against LSU and Georgia and again in the Elite Eight round against Notre Dame before coming up with the winning plays.
The fifth-youngest team in the country, these Wildcats played, spoke and acted like seasoned veterans throughout a season in which they received more national attention than any other college basketball program has in the history of the sport.
Thirty-eight and 0 is how they started the night. The lone blemish they leave it with is what had each of them questioning whether the season was a success.
"For our personal goals I feel like it kind of ruins the season," Booker said. "But again, you can't overlook what we've done this year. Thirty-eight and 0 is incredible, but we wanted the championship."
Kentucky's ninth championship banner will have to wait. After having played in the Final Four in four of the past five seasons, no one knows how long that wait will last. The 2015-16 version will undoubtedly be a different one as some Wildcats will surely leave Lexington after the semester is over to pursue their professional careers.
In the immediate aftermath of the loss, however, all of the focus was pointed inward toward each other and how much they will miss the team camaraderie and brotherhood established through a grueling season that began in the summer at the Bahamas, and ended in the spring in the national semifinals.
"It's definitely a close-knit group and I'm going to miss all these guys because the seniors and the rest of us who have a decision to make, we won't ever be on the same team," sophomore guard Aaron Harrison said. "It's just disappointing."
Disappointing, sure, but the special nature of their accomplishments, despite the loss, wasn't forgotten.
"This season is historic," Coach Cal said. "I just can't believe anybody is going to do what these kids just did to get to this point unblemished with the schedule they played, then how they did it."
And it wasn't only what the team accomplished on the court, but also all of their acts of greatness off the court. With a fan base as passionate as any in the country backing the team's every basket or defensive stop, these Wildcats recognized their place in the fabric of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, as well as the Big Blue Nation as a whole.
They visited hospitals, connected with fans and those less fortunate, participated in the ALS Challenge and Samaritan's Feet, and represented what many ask for in a team: humility, selflessness, teamwork and talent.
In the eyes of Towns, more than the records, more than the numbers, that may be what this team is remembered for the most.
"I think we should be remembered as great basketball players (and) great human beings," Towns said. "A team that shows that success is more important than individual success. Accolades don't count as much as the team success. That we all gave up a part of ourselves for each other to make a perfect mold in our minds. I think that just shows that talent doesn't always come with egos, but it comes with great human beings also."