Kentucky’s legacy remains complicated after heartbreaking loss to North Carolina

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Just like everything during John Calipari’s tenure at Kentucky, the legacy of the 2016-17 Wildcats is going to be complicated to figure out.

After Kentucky dropped a thrilling 75-73 game against No. 1 seed North Carolina in the South Regional final on Sunday, the college careers of freshmen Bam Adebayo, De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk are likely finished. All three freshmen are perhaps destined to be first-round NBA Draft picks in June. The trio also helped form one of the most important groups of freshmen to ever play for Calipari at Kentucky.

The Kentucky national-title winning group in 2012 is obviously No. 1 on that list and the 2014-15 team that started 38-0 comes in close second place. You could also make a solid case for the 2013-14 Kentucky team that rallied together and made the national championship game as a No. 8 seed or the John Wall/DeMarcus Cousins led-team that also made an Elite Eight. But the 2014 team was also dysfunctional enough that they lost to South Carolina in the regular season before the Gamecocks became nationally-relevant. Cousins remains a polarizing figure who wasn’t particularly popular outside of Big Blue Nation.

This 2016-17 Kentucky team was special because their freshmen somehow lived up to the immense hype while also being incredibly fun to watch. Winning the SEC regular season, conference tournament title and making an Elite Eight are great memories for Wildcat fans to have. Basketball fans in general get the individual memories of Monk’s white-hot scoring runs, Fox’s dazzling two-way play and Adebayo’s raw power around the rim.

Monk’s 47 points against North Carolina in the regular season and 30 points in the second half a home win over Florida are two of the most memorable individual scoring performances in college basketball over the last five years. Fox will be remembered for many things as well, but destroying Lonzo Ball and UCLA for 39 points to shatter the freshman NCAA Tournament single-game scoring record is about as special as it gets.

Adebayo doesn’t have the signature individual performance to match his fellow freshmen, but with over 100 dunks on the season, there were many times that he made his presence felt in the Kentucky lineup.

Replacing those three players is going to be tough but that is what Calipari is accustomed to doing. The McDonald’s All-American game tips this week and four more future Wildcats will take the floor. Five-star shooting guard Hamidou Diallo has already been practicing with Kentucky during the second semester while redshirting for next season.

Replacing the future NBA players is actually going to be the easy part for Kentucky.

Finding senior leadership like Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis is going be the difficult thing to replace. Those two in-state seniors provided the valuable experience of playing with so many gifted freshmen over the last four years while being selfless teammates who got better over time.

Both Hawkins and Willis have replaceable games and skill levels. But it seemed like Hawkins came off the bench countless times during his Kentucky career to give the perimeter a spark off the bench. After a slow start to his career, Willis developed into a capable rebounder and floor spacer at forward who knocked in a lot of big shots during the last two years.

Seeing a role player like Isaac Humphries step up in the Elite Eight is a positive sign for next season but Kentucky is going to miss the veteran presence of Hawkins and Willis more than they know.

While most Kentucky teams under Calipari have had a few veteran holdovers each year, the 2017-18 team might be seriously lacking in that department outside of Humphries.

If Isaiah Briscoe leaves to go pro as many assume, Wenyen Gabriel, Sacha Killeya-Jones and Tai Wynyard will all be back but they’ve barely played any meaningful minutes and none of them are guards.

Unless Calipari opts to bring in a graduate transfer — which he’s done in the past with Julius Mays — Kentucky is basically going to have to start from scratch with another ridiculous freshman core. Expectations will mean that Kentucky should be a top-15 team with a chance at an SEC title. The glaring lack of experience also means that Calipari will have to get a very young team to come together immediately.

This is the status quo for John Calipari’s tenure at Kentucky. And while they’ve had disappointing results in individual seasons while falling short of the Final Four again this season, it’s hard to say the model is anything other than wildly successful.

No. 1 seed North Carolina outlasts No. 2 seed Kentucky to advance to the Final Four

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Luke Maye buried the game-winning jumper with 0.3 seconds left to help North Carolina advance to its second consecutive Final Four as the No. 1 seed Tar Heels outlasted No. 2 seed Kentucky, 75-73, during Sunday’s South Regional final in Memphis.

During the insane final 10 seconds of Sunday’s game, Kentucky freshman guard Malik Monk tied the game at 73-all with a heavily-contested three-pointer at the top of the key, only to see North Carolina’s Theo Pinson take the ensuing possession down the floor to find Maye for the game-winner on the left wing.

A reserve like Maye knocking down one of the biggest shots in North Carolina history is a huge reason the program was able to reach its twentieth Final Four. North Carolina has relied on many different members of its veteran team this season and its the reason the Tar Heels will face No. 3 seed Oregon next weekend in Glendale.

Heading into 2016-17, many were asking how North Carolina was going to replace Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson and not showing respect to the returning Tar Heel veterans who helped them to last season’s national-title game.

Many became enamored by Duke’s overall talent level and jaw-dropping freshman class. However, that Blue Devil on-paper greatness never materialized into anything more than a conference-tournament title.

It was easier to talk about Villanova’s chances to repeat or Kentucky’s new crop of All-Americans than it was to jump aboard the North Carolina national championship bandwagon this season. Even Kansas got more preseason national championship hype than North Carolina, and the Jayhawks have had a recent history of exits before the Final Four.

Through all of that, North Carolina has been the steady model of consistency in the ACC this season as they’re seeing a complete rotation of experienced veterans play with total confidence.

Justin Jackson has turned into a lock first-round pick and one of the country’s most lethal scorers on the wing, while junior point guard Joel Berry II is a premier floor leader on both ends. Last season’s interior depth that was a huge plus for the Tar Heels has remained even with Johnson’s departure. Seniors Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks have both played in a lot of important games, while reserves like Maye and freshman Tony Bradley have contributed valuable minutes this season.

Even after the Tar Heels won the deepest league in the country by two full games during the regular season, it felt like other teams were getting more national title love since North Carolina exited the ACC Tournament early. The first weekend of the NCAA Tournament was a bloodbath for the ACC that saw the league lose eight of its nine teams before the Sweet 16. North Carolina was just rounding into form to make another potential run at a title.

Who would have envisioned that North Carolina would be the favorite for the national championship entering Final Four weekend at any point this season? That’s what we’re looking at as we move to Glendale next week, and there were plenty of warning signs about this team’s greatness and ability to handle adversity during Sunday’s win over Kentucky.

North Carolina fans panicked in the first half when Berry went to the locker room to deal with a lingering ankle issue. The Tar Heels were able to withstand until Berry’s return later in the first half as reserves like Maye, Nate Britt, Stillman White and Bradley contributed enough to keep a lead in Berry’s absence.

Finding themselves down by five points late in the second half as Kentucky had all of the momentum, North Carolina’s offense didn’t resort to rushing into bad shots. Just like the Arkansas game in the second round, the Tar Heels regained the advantage in the final minutes by going on a 12-0 run at just the right time.

North Carolina’s defense was also consistently strong on Sunday as Jackson and Pinson were both standouts as perimeter defenders. After seeing Monk and fellow freshman De’Aaron Fox combine for 71 points during Kentucky’s December win over North Carolina in Las Vegas, Jackson helped contain Monk to 12 points on Sunday while Fox was limited to 13 points.

In the most important game of the season, the Tar Heels overcame their starting point guard not playing at 100 percent and rallied in the final five minutes to win against a top-10 team.

That being said, there are plenty of storylines to follow in the Final Four that are going to be more fun to track than the Tar Heels returning for a second straight year.

America loves the underdog story of No. 7 seed South Carolina. Gonzaga making it to the Final Four for the first time is another intriguing subplot. Oregon making the Final Four from the west coast means there are two teams trying to break the region’s title-less streak that has been around since 1997.

But it would be foolish to, once again, overlook North Carolina and everything they’ve accomplished to reach this point. Even Sunday’s hero, Luke Maye, went from being a player that Roy Williams wanted to be a walk-on to now having his own “Maye Madness” nickname.

Williams made the mistake of undervaluing his own player and it almost came back to bite him. It’s the same lesson America should apply when appreciating everything that North Carolina has done during back-to-back memorable seasons.

VIDEO: Did South Carolina get away with a blatant travel after risky full-court pass?

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South Carolina is heading to its first Final Four in school history after a 77-70 win over No. 4 seed Florida in the East Region on Sunday.

But the No. 7 seed Gamecocks’ historic win also came with some late controversy.

With South Carolina clinging to a 70-68 lead with 53.7 seconds left, the Gamecocks opted to make an extremely risky full-court pass on an inbounds play. The pass was caught at the other end of the floor by South Carolina’s Duane Notice.

Then Notice took about four or five steps before he was fouled by Florida’s Chris Chiozza to send him to the line.

It looks like Notice had a pretty blatant travel on the play. It’s a ridiculous catch in traffic that has to make South Carolina football fans proud, but Notice is clearly walking after getting the ball. Notice knocked down two free throws after Chiozza’s foul to make it a two-possession game as it became 72-68 with 50 seconds left.

Florida was obviously flat in the second half and didn’t deserve to win on Sunday. But it makes you wonder what might have happened if a travel was called on Notice. The Gators would have had a chance to tie with under a minute left instead of it being a two-possession game.

Missouri lands No. 1 player in Class of 2017 as Michael Porter Jr. commits

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Missouri and new head coach Cuonzo Martin have landed the No. 1 player in the Class of 2017 a week after he took the job as forward Michael Porter Jr. committed to the Tigers on Friday.

Formerly a Washington commit under now-fired head coach Lorenzo Romar, the 6-foot-9 Porter was released from his Letter of Intent this week and many believed he’d end up back at Missouri.

The Porter family lived in Columbia for many years as two of Michael’s older sisters play for the Missouri women’s team while Michael Porter Sr. was an assistant coach for the women’s team.

When Porter Sr. was hired to Missouri to be an assistant coach on Martin’s staff this week — after losing his assistant coaching job at Washington when Romar was fired — it all but sealed the deal that the Porters would return to Missouri and Michael Jr. would play for the Tigers.

Missouri might not be an NCAA Tournament team next season after struggling to an 8-24 finish and 2-16 record in the SEC. But Porter might be the most productive freshman entering college basketball next season as he has a chance to be dominant in the SEC.

Alabama loses Nick King, Brandon Austin to transfer

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Alabama is losing a pair to transfer as junior Nick King and sophomore Brandon Austin are planning to transfer, according to a release.

The 6-foot-7 King is expected to graduate and be eligible to play anywhere right away as a graduate transfer while the 6-foot-5 Austin will likely have to sit out a season before playing.

King started his career at Memphis but transferred to Alabama. A former starter at small forward, King played the first seven games of the season until a lung infection shut down his season. He averaged 3.3 points and 2.9 rebounds per game before shutting it down.

A former top-50 recruit from the Class of 2013, King will look to jumpstart his career elsewhere during his final season of college basketball.

Austin only appeared in six games and played a total of 44 minutes this season as he also dealt with injuries like an early bone bruise.

The Crimson Tide are bringing in one of the best recruiting classes in the country next season as their freshmen could see a lot of playing time. So it comes as no surprise that players like King and Austin would transfer to assure more playing time.

No. 2 Kentucky outlasts No. 10 Wichita State in another classic NCAA Tournament slugfest

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INDIANAPOLIS — Kentucky and Wichita State engaged in another classic NCAA Tournament slugfest on Sunday as the No. 2 seed Wildcats pulled off a 65-62 win over the No. 10 seed Shockers in the second round of the South Region.

Down by one point with under one minute left, Wichita State’s potential go-ahead bucket was erased by Malik Monk’s key block as he made two free throws after getting fouled to give Kentucky a three-point lead. On the final possession for the Shockers, freshman Landry Shamet had his tying three-pointer blocked by freshman Bam Adebayo to seal the Wildcat win.

Although Kentucky has been a team dominated by talented freshman guards De’Aaron Fox and Monk for much of the season, Wichita State had no answer for Adebayo on the interior as he finished with 13 points and 10 rebounds.

The Wildcats (31-5) advanced to the Sweet 16 for the sixth time in head coach John Calipari’s eight seasons as Fox added 14 points and Monk also chipped in 14 points and four assists.

Wichita State (31-5) saw another postseason run end at the hands of Kentucky as this was a rematch of a legendary second-round tilt from the 2014 NCAA Tournament that saw the No. 1 seed Shockers lose their unbeaten season to the Wildcats.

The Shockers did everything they could to stay in the game but ultimately couldn’t do enough to get over the hump. Shamet led Wichita State with 20 points, 18 of which came in the second half, while Shaquille Morris added 11 points.

Kentucky advances to face the winner of No. 3 seed UCLA and No. 6 seed Cincinnati next week in Memphis. If the Wildcats play the Bruins, it will be a rematch of a game we saw during the regular season at Rupp Arena as UCLA came away with the road win.