Men's Basketball
Cal Proud of What UK Accomplished before Abrupt Ending

Cal Proud of What UK Accomplished before Abrupt Ending

by Guy Ramsey

It all happened as quickly for the players as it did for the Big Blue Nation.
One moment, the Kentucky Wildcats were leaving the floor following pregame shootaround and learning the Southeastern Conference Tournament had been cancelled in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The next, they were on the bus back to Lexington learning the NCAA Tournament had been cancelled for the same reason.
When they got home, there was only one thing they could think to do.
“They came back and they played pickup,” John Calipari said on his weekly radio show. “They played pickup. And then I heard later they all sat down and they cried because they knew that was it right there. That was the end, and they wanted to enjoy each other one more time.”
If only the Big Blue Nation could have watched that pickup game to say farewell.
Instead, fans will have to make do with memories from another successful season under Coach Cal. It followed a similar trajectory to previous years, with a road that was bumpy in the early going leading to successes. The successes came in the form of a thrilling overtime victory over rival Louisville that started a 17-3 stretch that delivered the 49th SEC regular-season championship in school history.
After a 25-6 regular season, Coach Cal had his team exactly where he wanted it to be: positioned for a deep NCAA Tournament run. In fact, Calipari thinks the run would have been as deep as it could go.
“We would have won the national title,” Calipari said. “But you know what? Fate intervenes sometimes and it’s something they have to deal with. As young men, these are all moments you’re teaching.”
Calipari had lots of teachable moments before the final one came in the form of a cancelled NCAA Tournament. Players, clearly, learned quite a bit from them. There was no better example of that than UK’s two All-SEC First Team performers, Immanuel Quickley and Nick Richards.
Quickley – the SEC Player of the Year – and Richards were UK’s top two scorers, the first time in the Calipari era that a pair of returners have led Kentucky in scoring. That might seem a mere curious note, but its significance should not be underestimated. A year after their teammate, PJ Washington, bypassed the NBA Draft and became an All-American, Quickley and Richards delivered the clearest proof that the notion that a Kentucky player is a failure simply because he doesn’t go pro after one season could not be further from reality.
“For me, everybody has their own story,” Richards said after a huge performance at Texas Tech in late January. “Just because I go to a school that’s known for one-and-done doesn’t mean I have to be one-and-done. It took me time to develop. Over the past three years, I’ve had the best time of my life meeting incredible people, having the best coaching staff in the world train me to be the player I am right now and to be the better player I could become.”
Quickley and Richards, as well as all of UK’s players, still have plenty ahead of them as basketball players. Some will face decisions of whether to enter the NBA Draft, while others will surely return. Only Nate Sestina is out of eligibility, but even his status is in flux as the NCAA weighs what to do in the wake of this unprecedented cancellation.
All that talk is for another day though. Calipari wants the focus – in the appropriately rare moments when it shifts from responding to this ongoing crisis to his team – to be on what this group accomplished and what it could have accomplished if it had been given the opportunity.
“Well, they believed in each other and they really liked each other,” Calipari said. “You know the thing I said, if this team, let’s just say this happened: We get in the NCAA Tournament, we advance. We get to a Final Four. We’re playing for a national title. This team would go down as one of the favorites of the era. Those 11 years. One of the favorites. Out of nowhere, didn’t expect it, came together. I loved watching them. They played so hard together and they tried. I love what’s happened for Nick. And Immanuel. He’s not even the … I mean, this could have been that kind of team. And my thing to our fans: It should be anyway.”

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