Another early exit for Kentucky, Calipari shows his program is far removed from its heyday

Players on the Kentucky bench watch late in the second half of the team's college basketball game against Oakland in the first round of the men's NCAA Tournament in Pittsburgh, Thursday, March 21, 2024. Oakland won 80-76. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Players on the Kentucky bench watch late in the second half of the team’s college basketball game against Oakland in the first round of the men’s NCAA Tournament in Pittsburgh, Thursday, March 21, 2024. Oakland won 80-76. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

PITTSBURGH (AP) — John Calipari finished the postgame handshake line and made a beeline toward the locker room.

A quick exit. Another early one for Kentucky.

As Calipari walked off the floor at PPG Paints Arena in what had been an otherwise warm return trip to his blue-collar Western Pennsylvania roots, he kept his eyes trained on the floor, perhaps afraid to look at any of the stunned and sickened Wildcats fans in attendance.

He could probably hear a few of them.

Unable to slow Oakland’s graduate guard Jack Gohlke, who made 10 3- pointers, second-seeded Kentucky fell 80-76 on Thursday night in the first round of the Midwest Region.

The Grizzlies, who went 15-5 in the Horizon League against the likes of Cleveland State, Wright State and Green Bay, took down own of college basketball’s blue bloods, albeit a Kentucky program that has been fading from national prominence.

“We made some critical mistakes at critical times again,” Calipari said dejectedly. “I mean, we had our chances. As good as they played and as many shots as they made, we still had our chances. And both on defense and offense. When you have a really young team and you look at where did the mistakes come from, they were freshmen.”

While Calipari’s legacy as one of his era’s greatest coaches is secure, his program has fallen off significantly from its early-2010s heyday, when the Wildcats made the Final Four four times in five years and won the national title in 2012. He’s lost four of his past five NCAA Tournament games.

Still, the Wildcats, with their usual bevy of high school All-Americans, had been a popular pick to make a deep run this March and maybe even make the Final Four for the first time since 2015. Sure, they were flawed. There were some major questions about their defense, and they lacked the kind of experienced, go-to player who can make big plays in crunch time.

Just like two years ago, when Saint Peter’s knocked Kentucky out in the first round, one and done doesn’t describe its ready-for-the-NBA roster but another tournament gone sour.

When the door to Kentucky’s locker room door finally opened following a cooling-off period, Tre Mitchell, who transferred for a chance to play for Calipari, walked out with a towel covering his eyes.

It was a familiar feeling. Last year, the Wildcats at least got one win before falling from the brackets.

“This time around, last year I was in tears, I was bumming,” he said. “This time it’s like I have so many emotions going on that I can’t feel them. I’m just kind of numb right now, and I’m sure it’ll hit me, but this one hurts a lot. You know, it hurts. It’s obviously not the desired outcome, and you’re on the headlines of a Cinderella story when you know that we had the potential to make a really deep run in this thing.”

Calipari resisted making many excuses. That’s not his style.

He praised Oakland, which had the better night.

But Calipari has talked at length this season about the youth of this Kentucky team and its overall lack of experience, two factors that contributed to a shorter stay in Pittsburgh than expected.

“I hate it for these guys that people try to define this season by that game, and it’s natural and it’s how this business works,” he said. “But this group was a ball to coach, and we did things to help them and bring them together, and they did it for each other. They’ve got great hearts, and that’s what’s devastating about this for me.

“I’ve lost tough games before, and we’ve won some buzzer-beater games. I mean, I’ve been through everything in my career. But this is one that’s like, man!”

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness

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