The Kentucky Wildcats were widely believed to be one of the five or six teams that had a realistic shot of winning the national championship entering the 2022 men’s NCAA tournament. After a nightmare season a year ago that saw the team finish 9-16 overall, John Calipari reloaded the roster with transfers instead of his usual onslaught of one-and-done freshmen. The new approach worked to great effect: Kentucky finished the season at 26-7 overall and earned a No. 2 seed to the NCAA tournament.
The Wildcats had an elite offense that finished No. 4 in the country. The defense was solid at No. 25. Kentucky had the national player of the year front-runner in Oscar Tshiebwe, who emerged as one of the most dominant rebounders in the recent history of the sport. Even after a disappointing loss to Tennessee in the semifinals of the SEC tournament, the Wildcats remained a popular pick to make the Final Four out of the East Region.
The march to New Orleans started with a game against MAAC tournament champ Saint Peter’s, a No. 15 seed. If this was supposed to be tune-up for the bigger and more talented teams on Kentucky’s path, the Wildcats quickly found out Saint Peter’s wasn’t going to go without a fight.
The Peacocks stunned Kentucky, 86-79, in overtime. It’s the second straight year a No. 15 seed has defeated a No. 2 seed in the men’s NCAA tournament, following Oral Roberts’ upset of Ohio State last year. It’s a shocking result that leaves the bottom half of the East Region without its blueblood powerhouse, and wrecks bracket pools around the country in the process.
Saint Peter’s was competitive throughout. The game was tied at halftime and played within one or two possessions for much of the second half. The Peacocks’ matchup zone defense gave problems all night to a Kentucky offense that had the lowest three-point rate (percentage of field goals from three-point range) of any tournament team.
Kentucky led by six with under three minutes remaining in regulation before the Peacocks started another rally. Saint Peter’s got a layup from Daryl Banks III, a layup from Hassan Drame, and a three-pointer from Doug Edert on three straight possessions to take a one-point lead with under a minute left. Kentucky found Kellan Grady for three on the next possession, and his miss was corralled by Oscar Tsheibwe. Tsheibwe quickly dished the ball back to Grady for a three-pointer that fell to give Kentucky a two-point lead. Saint Peter’s had one more chance, and Edert got a runner to go to tie the score. Kentucky couldn’t get off a good look on its final possession and the game headed to overtime.
With Saint Peter’s trailing by three in overtime, Edert tied the score on this beautiful play to get open from three.
Saint Peter's | Chin Ricky pic.twitter.com/CUqfVO4uQz— Half Court Hoops (@HalfCourtHoops) March 18, 2022
A layup from Drame, free throws from Banks, and multiple defensive stops iced the game for Saint Peter’s, who now advances to be one win away from the Sweet 16.
Here’s how Saint Peter’s sent Kentucky packing in the NCAA tournament.
Kentucky couldn’t make its free throws in the clutch
Kentucky started overtime by going 1-of-6 from the free throw line. Tsheibwe missed two, Sahvir Wheeler missed two, and Davion Mintz missed one.
The Wildcats went 23-for-35 (65.7 percent) from the line on the night. Saint Peter’s, meanwhile, went 18-for-21 from the line (85.7 percent). The Peacocks couldn’t get to the line as often as Kentucky, but they made every attempt count. Kentucky is going to be thinking about those missed free throws for a long time.
Kentucky didn’t get much from its best freshman or best shooter
TyTy Washington and Kellan Grady carried Kentucky for much of the year. Washington is the top freshman on the team and a projected lottery pick in the next NBA draft. Grady is a transfer from Davidson who shot 42.6 percent from three-point range on a high volume of attempts. Washington and Grady were going to have to be spectacular for Kentucky to reach the Final Four, and against Saint Peter’s they struggled immensely.
Washington ended the night with five points on 2-of-10 shooting. Grady’s only field goal was his three-pointer late in regulation. He ended the night with eight points on 1-of-9 shooting from the floor.
We’ve seen John Calipari teams get done in by a lack of shooting before. It happened again: the Wildcats went just 4-of-15 from three-point range on the night.
Kentucky couldn’t defend the ball
Banks was tremendous all night. He finished with 27 points on 9-of-19 shooting from the field and 5-of-8 shooting from three. Banks was consistently getting dribble penetration against Wheeler and the other Kentucky guards who couldn’t keep him out of the paint. Those drives often forced help that left Edert from three. Edert finished with 20 points on the night.
Kentucky’s offense scored efficiently all year, but it was rarely pretty. The Wildcats were a top-five offensive rebounding team off the strength of Tsheibwe. They never took threes. Wheeler was a terrific playmaker but putting Washington on the ball would have provided more scoring punch. Kentucky didn’t have great rim protection with Tsheibwe in the middle of its defense, either.
The lifeless offense down the stretch will haunt Calipari. In previous years, he could say his team was one of the youngest in the country, but not anymore. Instead, this Kentucky team fell victim to the same shortcomings that so many of Calipari’s other recent teams have also had. This counts as a major missed opportunity for the Cats.