CHICAGO – The most interesting part of Kentucky’s 65-61 loss to Kansas came after the game, in the press conference, as the Wildcats publicly projected an air of satisfaction.
John Calipari, Kevin Knox, they spoke as if hanging with Kansas, as if pushing the No. 4 team in the country, a team with 6.5 scholarship players available on Tuesday night, was a moral victory.
And no one batted an eye.
Kentucky had struggled in their season-opening win over Utah Valley, trailing by as much as 12 points early in the second half before coming alive and winning by ten. They only beat Vermont by four, as the Catamounts slowly and methodically chipped away at a Kentucky lead in the second half, missing two shots to tie the game in the final minute.
It wasn’t a surprise, not with the overwhelming amount of youth on the Kentucky roster and the simple fact that none of those youngsters fall into the same class as Michael Porter Jr., Deandre Ayton or Marvin Bagley III. We all knew that Kentucky was going to go through growing pains this season, that the product they put on the floor in March will be markedly different than the one we’ve seen through the first week of the season, but it is still odd to see a program the caliber of Kentucky qualifying a loss with ‘we played hard.’
“We were just fighting. I give it to my teammates. We really fought,” Kevin Knox, the most celebrated member of Kentucky’s freshman class, said. “A lot of people ha us losing this game by 20, 30 points, but we said before the game that we’re not having it. They’re a veteran team, we’re a real young team. A lot of people thought they’d have the advantage, but tonight we really fought our butts off. We played really hard in the second half, and we could have won the game. We only lost by four points.”
I couldn’t agree with that statement more, and there were a lot of positives to take out of that game.
And it may have answered one of the two biggest questions hanging over the program this season: Who is Kentucky’s closer? Who is Kentucky’s go-to guy?
Kevin Knox, or so it seems.
Knox struggled through the first two games of the season. He was 6-for-23 from the floor, he was 2-for-8 from three and he was averaging 11.5 points. Against Kansas, however, Knox was terrific, finishing with 20 points, banging how three threes and showing off a perimeter game that I wasn’t sure that he had in his arsenal yet; he made a couple pull-ups and he was able to create offense off of the dribble.
He’s not where he needs to be yet, but I left the United Center feeling much better about where Kentucky stands this season than I did entering.
“I still don’t know how we’re going to play late in a close game,” head coach John Calipari said, adding that “late in the game, that’s not on those kids. We haven’t worked on late-game situations.”
“I knew it was going to be tough, but I need to put these kids into those situations. I need to see who can make a shot, who can make a free throw. You can only learn about your team in games like this.”
They’ll get there eventually.
The bigger concern is at the point guard spot. Kentucky has two on their roster this season, and neither of them appear to be the answer. Quade Green, who has started the last two games after coming off the bench, is better on the offensive end of the floor but struggles defensively. Vermont’s Trae Bell-Haynes ate him up in the second half of Kentucky’s win. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a much better defender, but when he’s on the floor and Green isn’t, Kentucky’s only effective means of generating offense comes in transition or on the offensive glass. Against Kansas, Gilgeous-Alexander turned the ball over six times.
The way Calipari wants to run his program is clear: Go get one of the best incoming freshman point guards to run his team. Whether it’s Tyreke Evans or Derrick Rose or John Wall or De’Aaron Fox or Marquis Teague, the trend is clear. This year, he didn’t get a player on that level. Green and Gilgeous-Alexander both fall in that second tier of point guard, and the only other year where that was the case for Cal was back in 2012-13, when N.C. State transfer Ryan Harrow ran the show and Kentucky ended up in the NIT.
I don’t think the Wildcats are in danger of repeating that season, particularly if Knox keeps growing into that go-to guy role. They’re still going to be very good defensively and they’re still going big enough to get to dominate the glass on most nights, which should help them mitigate the fact that their perimeter shooting is not quite where it needs to be.
But the difference between Kentucky being good and Kentucky genuinely being considered among the nation’s best teams is at the point, and unless Calipari can find a way to fuse Green’s ability on the offensive end of the floor with Gilgeous-Alexander’s skill as a defender, I’m not quite sure what the answer is going to be.
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BOSTON — It was a gut punch when they got the call.
After a dreadful 3-15 freshman season, Tubby Smith had turned Texas Tech around his sophomore year, when Keenan Evans had averaged 8.7 points and 2.9 assists, respectable enough given the role that Tubby asks his point guards to play. The core of that team — a sophomore class that also included Zach Smith, Justin Gray and Norense Odiase — were returning. Tubby was making some in-roads in Texas. Everything was pointing up.
And then the former Kentucky head coach left for Memphis, a job that would chew him up and spit him out within two years.
“As parents, we definitely thought about what his next step would be,” Kenny Evans said. Who would Texas Tech hire? What if they didn’t like him? What if he didn’t like Keenan? It didn’t help matters that the Evans family had a weird and unique bond with Tubby.
The Evans’ family is as athletic as athletic gets. Keenan’s basketball IQ and guile come from his mom, Shantell, who was an all-SWAC guard at Arkansas-Pine Bluff. His athleticism comes from his dad, Kenny, who was an Olympic high-jumper. He finished 13th in the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, which also happened to be the Games where Tubby was an assistant coach for USA Basketball. Kenny, an Arkansas-native and high school basketball star, knew who Tubby Smith was; he was less than two years removed from winning a national title out of the same conference as his Razorbacks, and Kenny says he idolized Nolan Richardson and his Arkansas teams.
“You don’t see a lot of celebrities in Arkansas,” Kenny said, so when the Track & Field team was put next to the USA Basketball team, he did what any red-blooded American would do: He asked them for pictures.
One of those pictures was with Tubby — Kenny’s mother was a fan — and that picture ended up being displayed in the Evans house for years to come.
Suffice to say, Tubby’s name carried some weight with the family. It was part of what made Keenan decide to play at Texas Tech. And it’s one of the reasons why Keenan’s parents wanted to do their homework on the good ole’ boy Tech hired that was on his third job in three weeks, his sixth job in six seasons and a little more than four years removed from coaching in the ABA.
Chris Beard’s roots run deep in Texas.
He went to high school just outside Houston. He was a manager at Texas during his time as a student. After graduating, he spent 14 of the next 16 seasons coaching in Texas, with one-year layovers at Junior Colleges in Kansas and Oklahoma along the way.
Throw in a one-year stay with the South Carolina Warriors and one season with Arkansas-Little Rock, and Beard lived outside Texas for just four years since childhood. And, as his assistant coach Chris Ogden puts it, “Beard’s a relationship guy.” He knows people all over the state, and when he got the job at Texas Tech — where he had previously been an Associate Head Coach under Bobby Knight — Kenny started getting calls from people vouching for him.
Give him a chance.
He may not have the national title-pedigree that Tubby does, but he’s got a shot at getting there one day.
Hear him out.
And Beard made sure they would have the chance to do so. Almost immediately after setting foot in Lubbock, the new Tech staff got to work trying to develop relationships with his new players and their families. Beard had a one-on-one meeting with every single member of the Texas Tech roster, which is not uncommon. He then took a flight to meet with the family of every member of his team. To sit down in front of them, look them in the eye and get to know them personally, as more than just the people that his players hear from when they go over their data plan or when those on-campus parking tickets start to add up.
“When I called them to let them know that Coach Beard said he was going to fly out to see [them], they were kind of shook,” Keenan said. “‘Wow, he’s really going to fly to everybody’s family around the country?’ They were really in shock and that stood out to them as well.”
“Not a lot of coaches do that. Fly to each person’s family, sit down and meet them, introduce himself. That played a big part in [my decision to stay] as well.”
The other part of it was that Keenan believed in the plan, in the vision that Beard had, for both the program and himself.
You see, the way Tubby uses his point guard is different than the way Beard does.
“Tubby is more old school,” Kenny explains. “He envisioned his point guards not shooting much and running the offense. Chris is new school. He recognizes you need to me more dynamic at the point guard spot. You gotta be a threat to score to get assists.”
And Beard knew he had the guy he needed in Keenan.
The staff was not unfamiliar with him when they took over. Ogden had recruited Keenan’s high school teammates, so he had seen him plenty. They knew what Keenan would be able to do when unleashed, and they knew what kind of a player and a worker they were inheriting.
“I just believed in his process, believed that he wanted to win at this level,” Evans said. “He believed in me, so I believed in him, and he gave me an opportunity. And he’s still doing that.”
“What I’m most appreciative of Keenan is he basically trusted me before he had to. He basically took me at my word,” Beard said. “He trusted me from day one, and I asked him to do a lot of things that he had never done before in his career.”
It paid off.
Tech struggled last season, but as a senior, Keenan morphed into one of college basketball’s best players. He’s averaging 17.8 points, 3.2 assists and 3.2 boards entering Friday’s Sweet 16 matchup with Purdue, numbers that would have been more impressive in a year that could have truly been legendary if it wasn’t for an awkward landing after a jump shot that resulted in unfortunate toe injury that Keenan suffered at Baylor on February 17th.
Keenan did not play in the second half of that game. He did play at at Oklahoma State and against Kansas in the two subsequent games, but anyone watching knew that he wasn’t himself. He sat out a road trip to West Virginia.
Four straight losses.
Sole possession of first place in the Big 12 with a home game left against Kansas and a grasp on Big 12 Player of the Year turned into just another victim of the Jayhawks’ 14-year reign over the conference.
And if you don’t think that was hard for Keenan to handle, you don’t know Keenan.
Keenan Evans has always picked up on things quickly.
Everyone has that one friend that is annoyingly good at everything, whether it’s pool, or bowling, or Fortnite. That’s Keenan, and that’s why Keenan’s mom — an all-conference basketball player herself — had to stop training him by the time he was in the fourth grade.
He was just getting too good, too quickly.
That can be a slippery slope. If you’re a natural, if things come too easily to you, work ethic might not be your forte. With Keenan, it worked the other way. When he got good at one thing, he wanted to perfect the next thing. The best are the best because they are addicted to improvement, and Keenan falls into that category.
“The Keenan Evans story is not me or Tubby,” Beard said. “It is Keenan Evans. This guy self-made himself into one of the best players in college basketball, and I can tell you how he’s done it. He’s done it with a lot of work. He’s in the gym every day. He’s in the film room a lot. He’s a guy that’s changed his body in the weight room.”
That’s what made this toe issue so devastating.
We’re talking about a guy that is known within the Texas Tech locker room as being their hardest work. Three-a-days in the gym. He’s made himself into a star. He earned his shot at getting a Big 12 title and a Player of the Year award, and it got taken away from him.
Because of a toe.
“Simply stated, a lot of guys wouldn’t even be playing on it right now,” Beard said. “Keenan is playing on it and playing at a high level. He’s just an absolute warrior.”
“I’ve never coached a tougher guy than Keenan Evans.”
“It was tough to overcome just because I felt like I was letting my team down in a way,” Keenan said. “It wasn’t my fault, but also [my toe’s] just not 100 percent, and I still battle with it every night.”
According to Kenny, the struggle was as much mental as physical.
“It was devastating for him,” he said. “He tried to be strong for his teammates. He could have shut it down and gotten ready for everything after college. But that’s not us, that’s not our family, that’s not Keenan.”
He does his best to stay off the foot when he’s not playing games. His time on the practice floor is limited. When media is granted access to the Texas Tech locker room, Keenan’s foot is in a big, yellow bucket full of ice water. He doesn’t have the same explosiveness. He can’t push off of it the way he did before the injury. And that’s before you get to the mental side of it, having the confidence in himself and his body to be able to try and do the things he’s been doing all season long.
And in this tournament, it’s worked.
Keenan has scored 45 points through two games, and 33 of those 45 points have come in the second half. He made every shot he took in the second half of a come-from-behind win over Stephen F. Austin in the opener. He hit the go-ahead three and threw a lob to Zhaire Smith for the clinching basket in the final two minutes of the win over Florida. All told, in his last five games, Evans is averaging 17 of his 21.2 points and shooting 26-for-37 from the floor after halftime.
He is Texas Tech’s closer, and with a date against No. 2-seed Purdue in the Sweet 16 on Friday night, Evans will likely be called upon to close once again.
Just the way Beard likes it.
“I just love coaching him,” he said. “I just don’t want it to end. I want to coach that guy another day. It is like when you go to a good movie and you know it’s getting towards the end, but you are loving the movie so much, you want it to go a little bit farther. Or you’ve got a good plate of enchiladas and you’re looking at it, and you only have two bites left, but it’s so good, you turn it into three bites.”
“I want it to keep lasting.”
The end was disappointing, but Kentucky’s season outpaced all expectation
In yet another example of what makes March Madness the greatest and most unpredictable sporting spectacle on the planet, Kentucky’s run to the Sweet 16 this season is going to be looked at as a disappointment.
Who saw that coming back in January?
Who thought that this team had second weekend potential when they were in the midst of the first four-game losing streak of John Calipari’s tenure in Lexington?
And please, show me who, at that point in time, predicted that Kentucky media would be calling a loss in the Sweet 16 “the worst loss” in the Calipari era back when there were actual discussions being had over whether or not the Wildcats were going to get into the NCAA tournament?
It’s amazing how quickly the tide turns in college basketball
Kentucky lost on Thursday night. The fifth-seeded Wildcats fell to the ninth-seeded Wildcats of Kansas State in a game that turned into drama-filled slugfest down the stretch. The final score was 61-58. Kentucky had two shots at the end of regulation to force a tie or take the lead. They also gave up an offensive rebound to a 6-foot-3 no-name with 40 seconds left that led to the game-winning bucket.
The narrative is going to be that Kentucky choked this game away, that their inability to run offense — and P.J. Washington’s free throw yips — cost them the Final Four that seemed a given Thursday morning and a pipe dream on Selection Sunday.
The truth is that Kentucky was a flawed basketball team that got hot at the right time before running into a team that executed a game-plan to perfection while getting the benefit of a couple of bounces and whistles going their way.
And let me be perfectly clear: In no way, shape or form am I saying that Kentucky or Big Blue Nation should be happy with this loss. It should be disappointing. It should hurt — more so for the players than the fans, but whatever. The bracket broke perfectly for them. Everyone in their region was a cinderella. We weren’t wrong in thinking that Coach Cal’s kids were the heavy favorites to get to San Antonio out of Catlanta.
But we need to say that while also acknowledging this: There is a reason that Kentucky was a No. 5-seed this season.
This was a flawed basketball team.
They were young. They didn’t have enough shooting. Their offense was entirely too predictable, even when they were winning. If Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Kevin Knox weren’t carrying the load for them on that end, they didn’t really have anywhere to turn. And on Thursday night, they ran into a team that had the personnel and a game-plan to take away Kentucky’s two go-to guys.
Kansas State is not overly talented, but what they have in abundance are tough, athletic and older guards that are going to put in a shift on the defensive end of the floor. Kentucky fans may not know who Barry Brown is, but I guarantee you that fans of every Big 12 team can tell you just how good he can be. I guarantee that coaches in the Big 12 can tell you just how annoying their guards are, and those little guards played that role to perfection.
To put it another way, it wasn’t a fluke that Gilgeous-Alexander struggled to make plays off the dribble the way he has for the last two months of the season. It wasn’t an accident that Kevin Knox struggled to find a way to get the looks he had become accustomed to getting coming off of Kentucky’s circle sets.
And in a 40 minute basketball game, when one team matches up well with another, something as simple as Xavier Sneed catching fire and Washington going 8-for-20 from the foul line will get you beat.
But that’s neither here nor there.
Because the real point that I am trying to make here is that this particular Kentucky team just wasn’t all that good. They were young. They were injured. They had their flaws masked by the improvement of a couple of kids who played out of their minds for long stretches of the season, and I just don’t think that’s something that should be overlooked.
Maybe this is just my mindset as a fan. I enjoy the ride more than I need to celebrate the ending. Give me a reason to tune in every game. Make me excited to have the monotony of a week broken up when the ball tips. I’m good.
And I think this Kentucky team accomplished just that.
But two weeks ago, no one thought this team had a shot of getting to the Elite 8. Two months ago, every Kentucky fan would have taken a trip to the second weekend in a heartbeat.
The ending sucked.
No doubt about it.
But this team kept fighting and kept improving and, in the end, lost because someone took makeup remover to the cosmetics that Calipari applied.
Be disappointed, but don’t lost sight of the big picture.
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