UK Loss Ends a Season to Remember
DES MOINES, Iowa – Kentucky began the year with its eighth-leading scorer returning, a lone senior who had played just eight games in the past year, and nine newcomers.
It went through highs and lows as the season progressed, as one would expect, but grew to become a team that was one of the favorites to advance to the Final Four for the fifth time in six years.
It was a long season that flew by. It was exhausting and exhilarating. It was wonderful and, ultimately, heartbreaking.
“It was a great year for us,” sophomore point guard Tyler Ulis said. “I felt like we went through a lot of ups and downs, had a lot of young players and guys learning how to play the right way. Everybody got better individually and today we didn't play our best as a team, but I feel like we had a good season up to now.”
Statistically, Kentucky, which had the No. 1 offensive efficiency in the country, had its worst offensive performance of the year in a 73-67 loss to fifth-seeded Indiana in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
The Wildcats scored a season-low 0.91 points per possession, and committed 16 turnovers, its most since Jan. 30 in an overtime loss at Kansas, including six offensive fouls. After hitting an average of 10.7 3-pointers in three Southeastern Conference Tournament games, UK could only muster four 3s on 16 attempts against the Hoosiers (27-7).
“We're normally the most efficient offensive team in the country,” head coach John Calipari said. “There's two things that happened. We had six offensive fouls. I don't know if in my career I've had a team have six offensive fouls. Then we couldn't make open shots so we have eight assists. Like, all these open shots we missed. We missed a ton of really good shots. But these kids aren't machines. They're not computers. Stuff happens and you try to figure it out.”
Unfortunately for the fourth-seeded Cats (27-9), they’ll have to try to figure it out in the offseason.
Questions about who would stay and who would go (or at least test the NBA’s waters thanks to a new rule from the NCAA Division I Council) fell on deaf ears with the loss to the Hoosiers still raw.
Instead, the Wildcats were much more open to remembering a season that included one of the best backcourts Kentucky’s illustrious program has ever had, a 47th SEC regular-season championship, a 29th SEC Tournament title, and a growth in each player’s individual game.
“I love this team,” junior forward Marcus Lee said. “That’s pretty much all you can say because at the end of the day, 30 years from now, you’re not thinking about this huge loss. You’re thinking about the people you were here with. I’m just glad I was here with this team.”
“I had fun,” Isaiah Briscoe said. “I think everybody on this team had fun. Everybody on this team got along with each other, and we were a family.”
Ulis, who enjoyed one of the best seasons by any Wildcat ever under Coach Cal, also spoke about how much fun was enjoyed by the team this year. His own role grew from the backup point guard, to a team leader, All-American and national player of the year candidate. But being the leader he is, he chose to talk about others before himself.
“We had a lot of fun this year,” Ulis said. “Everybody was close, we got along on and off the court. I don’t want to end the season with these guys, but it’s over. Everybody came out and played hard every night. Guys got better as a team, individually, guys started playing a lot better. Skal (Labissiere), from where he was early to where he’s at now, he was blocking shots, getting rebounds early in the game. Guys just developed as players.”
UK’s lone senior, Alex Poythress went through the ups and downs of the 2015-16 season as well as a four-year career that saw a stint in the NIT, one of the most memorable runs to the NCAA championship game in tournament history, an ACL tear in the midst of an undefeated season, and a senior campaign where he served as one of the Cats’ top post presences.
“It's been a great four years,” Poythress said. “I wouldn't trade it for the world. I met a lot of great friends. Looking forward to the future. I made some of the best memories of my life. I wouldn't trade it for the world.
“It's different, because this one you can't come back from, so to speak. Career's over. You don't get another chance at it. You just look forward to the future.”
For Jamal Murray, the 2015-16 season was one of growth.
Murray scored 16 points and grabbed seven rebounds against Indiana, and tacked on two more 3-pointers to his UK freshman record, finishing with at least one made 3 in all 36 games played (another program record). His bow and arrow celebration swept the Commonwealth, making every member of Big Blue Nation try their hand at mimed archery.
But sitting by his locker after the game with a towel draped over his head and fighting to get words out through his tears, Murray spoke appreciatively about the transformation his game underwent thanks to the work of the UK coaches and his teammates.
“I learned a lot off the court,” Murray said. “I learned a lot about the people and about everything. Just on the court, learning how to play winning basketball. How to be a leader, even though I’m the two-guard. How to play with three guards. How to mix it up, how to find new ways to get my shot off. I just learned so much.”
Coach Cal’s message to the team after the game was simple: Be proud.
“What I told 'em after the game is, don't let this game get in the way of what you guys accomplished this year because it was incredible.”