LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky was looking like a national championship contender a week ago after winning the Southeastern Conference championship, playing some of its best basketball of the season.
Then, as has been a problem all season with the Wildcats, they took a step back in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. As a result, Kentucky is looking forward to next year after Saturday's 73-67 loss to Indiana. The Wildcats' annual roster makeover looms, but only after they digest an earlier-than-expected postseason departure.
Kentucky (27-9) was sent packing in its quickest NCAA Tournament exit since 2008 and marked the first time in six appearances under coach John Calipari that the Wildcats failed to at least reach the regional final.
Though Kentucky replaced seven players who entered the NBA draft, going and winning the SEC and a game in the tournament wasn't a given — even with Calipari making it seem like Kentucky just reloads with the next class of one-and-dones. The Wildcats were No. 1 for several weeks before yo-yoing up and down the Top 25 as they sought to find a rhythm.
"It was a great year for us," said sophomore point guard Tyler Ulis, who earned dual SEC honors as the conference's top player and defender.
"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 (Saturday) we didn't play our best as a team, but I feel like we had a good season up to now."
Ulis and freshman Jamal Murray were Kentucky's top two scorers, and emerged as one of the nation's best backcourt tandems. The Wildcats relied heavily on both to offset frontcourt questions; Murray led Kentucky in scoring at 20 points per game followed by Ulis' 17.3.
The 5-foot-9 Ulis also drew comparisons to former Wildcats standout John Wall with his floor leadership and durability that has made him a finalist for several national awards. His 246 assists set a single-season program record and he led Kentucky in minutes with an average of nearly 37 per contest.
Other positions were hit-and-miss for the young Wildcats, and Indiana eventually took advantage of those vulnerabilities — particularly inside.
Still, Calipari praised the strides his squad made.
"I told them after the game, 'don't let this game get in the way of what you guys accomplished this year because it was incredible,' " the coach said.
The question now, as it always seems to be: Who will declare for the draft.
Murray and 6-11 Skal Labissiere seem most likely to leave early, even though the Haitian post player had a rollercoaster freshman season. Ulis has shied away from draft talk but could enter the pool; junior forward Marcus Lee and freshman guard Isaiah Briscoe remain uncertain.
The Wildcats have veterans in junior forward Derek Willis — who emerged into a viable contributor down the stretch — and guard Dominique Hawkins. Seven-foot Australian Isaac Humphries seems likely to return, with 6-10 New Zealander Tai Wynyard set to join the roster.
Of course, there's always that incoming crop of talent that has Calipari hopeful as he deals with the quick end to his season.
Said Calipari, "the big picture for us is we're fine."