Disappointment over early tournament exit undeserved

Jamal Murray holds back tears in the locker room after the NCAA Tournament second round game against the Indiana Hoosiers at Wells Fargo Arena on Saturday, March 19, 2016 in Des Moines, Iowa. Photo by Taylor Pence | Staff.

The season was built on disappointment before it was given a chance. Coming off a year that saw a team nearly mount the peak of perfection before toppling for its first and only loss of the season to Wisconsin, expectations for this year’s team — which lost seven players to the NBA — should have been low. 

But just as they always are, the stakes were high in Lexington, and with the return of Tyler Ulis and a promising recruiting class coming in, it seemed that expectation might be met. 

The team had question marks heading into the season, but in the end, the wrong ones were answered by the Cats. 

With a starting lineup featuring three point guards, concerns over how the three would function together on the court at the same time were fair. 

The play of Ulis along with freshmen Isaiah Briscoe and Jamal Murray eventually spoke for itself once the games started. Ulis was the floor general everyone expected him to be, while the other two were able to show other strengths playing off-ball.

Briscoe turned into a one-man wrecking crew able to make his way to the basket at will, while also turning into the Cats’ best on-ball defender and one of the best rebounding guards in the nation.

Murray worked his way from sidekick to one of the best players in the country alongside Ulis. The freshman showed a scoring ability unmatched from any previous player under John Calipari with his 20 points per game season average and 36 straight games with a made three.

As the season carried on, though, the team was plagued by an undependable frontcourt — the other big question mark heading into the season — that made a burden too heavy for the guards to carry.

Freshman Skal Labissiere headlined UK’s recruiting class and was even mentioned in the same breath as former UK great and national champion Anthony Davis. Upon entry to the college game, he showed a lack of toughness and strength that made him a role player off the bench. He was far from the star freshman UK thought it was getting.

As the season went on, Labissiere joined junior Marcus Lee and senior Alex Poythress to form an underwhelming frontcourt that proved to be UK’s Achilles heel in the team’s eight regular season losses.

That narrative stayed true until the end as UK sustained its first Second Round exit of the NCAA Tournament in Calipari’s tenure at the hands of rival Indiana.

“I’m sick for Tyler and Jamal who had great years and, you know, Isaiah, and, you know, I feel so bad because, you want — I’ll sit back,” Calipari said. “Could I have done something different? Is there something else I could have done to help them get over the hump?”

It wasn’t for lack of effort from Ulis. He scored a game high 27 points, including eight points in the last 1:06 of action. 

Ulis willed the team to wins at times, averaging 17.3 points and 6.8 assists per game. He proved himself to be one of the best players in the nation despite his small stature by earning All-American honors, SEC Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year awards. 

The stellar play of Ulis will not soon be forgotten by the Big Blue Nation. The point guard cemented himself in UK history, breaking John Wall’s single season assist record, but he will stand out in fans’ memories even more for all the intangibles he provided for this team. 

In the end, his leadership and the rest of the Cats’ efforts succeeded in one thing that people may take for granted. 

With Calipari’s possible best recruiting class coming in next season, the Cats are bound for another pursuit of perfection. 

The highs from last year may have been enough to carry fans to the next great run, but Ulis and this year’s team refused to be just a buffer in between pursuits of perfection. 

This team provided fans with memories that will likely never fade. Whether it was Ulis becoming an on-court coach, Murray lighting up opposing teams at an unheralded volume and efficiency, or Poythress providing a first for fans since UK hired Calipari — a truly special Senior Day ceremony — this team gave fans something they didn’t know they needed, and the first weekend exit doesn’t change any of that.