Kentucky’s Basketball Season Filled With Ups and Downs


Taron Palmer

UK fans were hoping for a strong showing in the March Madness tournament instead of a loss in the first round.

Taron Palmer, Staff Reporter

The Kentucky basketball program has had quite the past few years. From COVID-19 canceling a potentially special team, to a historically disappointing season in 2020-21, Kentucky coaches, players, and fans alike had grown tired of all the uncertainty, and were looking forward to a new season, and a new team that had been built differently than any other roster in years past.   

Pre-Season Expectations

Entering the summer, Kentucky was looking to fill out a depleted roster, after a historically disappointing season. As usual, Kentucky had one of the top incoming recruiting classes. Daimion Collins, Nolan Hickman, and Bryce Hopkins  They had also grabbed TyTy Washington,  the 3rd-highest rated Point Guard in the class of 2021 according to 247 Sports. However, Nolan Hickman later re-considered his options and is now attending Gonzaga. Overcoming this adversity 

There were hefty expectations, considering Kentucky had grabbed not only some of the best transfers in the country, but some of the most experienced. In Point Guard Sahvir Wheeler from Georgia,  SG Kellan Grady from Davidson  and C Oscar Tshiebwe, who transferred in mid-season from West Virginia, they already had some of the best pieces of any other team in the country, to try and make a run at the National Championship. 

Exhibition Frustrations 

Back in November, before the season had started, Kentucky was participating in their first exhibition games as a team, and their first exhibition games as a program since the beginning of the 2019-2020 season, since COVID-19 guidelines had knocked out any possibility of participating in these games a year prior. 

The season got off to an interesting start, as the Wildcats trailed the Miles College Golden Bears, a Division II school from Fairfield, Alabama, by 7 points heading into half time, in an exhibition game that was expected to be a no-contest. The ‘Cats ended up winning the game, however, behind 15 points, 6 assists, and 4 rebounds from freshman guard TyTy Washington, but some heads had seemed to be turned, for all the wrong reasons. 

Opening the Season

In the season opener against Duke, the college basketball world was introduced to Oscar Tshiebwe. He led the team in scoring, rebounding and blocks, recording his first of many double doubles on the season. As for the other players, TyTy Washington opened the season on quite the struggle. Shooting just 3-14 from the floor, and 0-2 from deep, the pre-season hype for a scoring point guard had some fans worried, especially after having lived through a season of Devin Askew running the show, a year prior. 

Sahvir Wheeler made his presence felt, recording 16 points and 10 assists, but he did have untimely and rather unforced turnovers, especially down the stretch, adding up to 7 for the entire game. Which, for those who may not watch basketball, isn’t great. Keion Brooks was just okay, which is basically how it always is with him. Kellan Grady hit some shots, shooting a respectable 3-7 from deep. Kentucky also struggled to get bench production in the opener, which continues to be a theme to this day as they have been pretty off and on throughout the season. 

Pessimism Begins to Develop 

After the Duke loss, Kentucky would face 7-straight underwhelming opponents at home. Although they had won all 7, the worry of not having a strong resume for March Madness was starting to build. The season to that point had been average, and some fans were pessimistic about the future of the team. Bench guard Davion Mintz was out some games due to sickness, and things just felt like things weren’t going anywhere. 

Those feelings heightened following a road loss to Notre Dame. At the time, Notre Dame wasn’t seen as a team that would even make the NIT. The Fighting Irish were blown out at Boston College the game prior, and followed the Kentucky game with a loss to Indiana. So, after playing nobody for over a month, losing to an inferior team, and showing little if any improvement, Kentucky fans and media were rightfully worried.

Things Begin to Look Up

The next game on the schedule was the CBS Sports Classic in Las Vegas, a game against an Ohio State team that had just knocked off No. 1 Ranked Duke. However, due to COVID-19 outbreak within the Ohio State program, they had to cancel the game. Kentucky was ultimately scheduled against North Carolina. 

North Carolina entered the game with only two losses on their schedule, losing to current top-15 teams Purdue and Tennessee. They were on a 5-game win streak and had beaten a team that was top-25 at the time, Michigan. So, with Kentucky dropping a game to a perceived bad Notre Dame, and UNC beating a good team, expectations were not very high. National analysts had been picking North Carolina to win the matchup prior to game day, and that trend continued all the way to right before tip as CBS analysts Clark Kellogg and Seth Davis made their picks, both making the Tar Heels their choice to win the game. 

From the opening tip, it was not even a game. Kentucky opened up a 23-8 lead with just over 10-minutes left in the first half. The Wildcats did not look back from this point, winning the game 98-69. Sahvir Wheeler had the game of his career, in terms of scoring. Dropping 26 points on 12-15 shooting, with 8 assists, 3 rebounds and only 2 turnovers. A statement win for a team that needed to find an identity, with conference play soon approaching. 

Once again, a game was canceled due to COVID-19 concerns. This time, it was against in-state rival Louisville. This time, their replacement matchup was against Western Kentucky, a team at the time who was dealing with a local devastating natural disaster and had beaten Louisville the weekend prior. However, no mercy was shown from Oscar Tshiebwe, as he dropped 14 points and rained in a Rupp Arena record 28 rebounds, and the most rebounds by a Kentucky player since Mike Phillips in 1976, as Kentucky cruised to a 35 point win over the Hilltoppers. 

Starting Conference Play

Opening conference play on a high note, Kentucky struggled early against a Missouri Tigers team that was just 6-6 on the season to that point. Kentucky ended up closing out the game with a 27 point win, and followed their next game against former Kentucky Coach Tubby Smith’s High Point Panthers with a 44 point win, as Kellan Grady hit 7-10 threes and had 23 points. Kentucky had now won 4 straight games, by an overall average of nearly 34 points. 

The first test of conference play was against the 13-1 defensive minded LSU Tigers. LSU locked down UK early, a game in which starting PG Sahvir Wheeler left with a neck injury, that occured on a hard screen by LSU’s Efton Reid. The Wildcats were able to weather the storm behind Jacob Toppin’s  only trailing by 5 points at half time. Kentucky started the second half hot leading by as much as 8 points. LSU came back and took the lead again, adn the cats couldn’t come back because TyTy Washington was out a good chunk of the second half due to cramping. The ‘Cats finished with a 5 point loss. 

Over the next two games, UK would be without Sahvir Wheeler, forcing TyTy Washington to start at  PG. He did not disappoint. In just his first game running the show, he dropped a Kentucky record 17 assists. He also got help as usual from Oscar Tshiebwe, who had a dominant 29 points and 17 rebounds. Davion Mintz even chipped in, hitting 5 of 7 from deep, and 7-10 overall, allotting 19 points. The next game without Wheeler, would be a 16 point win against the Vanderbilt commodores. Oscar Tshiebwe continued his dominance and TyTy followed up his impressive assisting performance with 15 points, 4 rebounds, and 4 assists. 

Climax of the season

The return game for Wheeler would be a defining moment in the season, a game that turned heads back in the Wildcats’ direction. Kentucky absolutely torched the Tennessee Volunteers for 107 points, shooting 67.9% from the field and 61.1% from deep. It felt like everything was dropping for the ‘Cats. A 28 point win over their arch-rival was exactly what the doctor ordered for Kentucky fans. 

Over the course of the next few weeks, Kentucky would be on a bit of a roller coaster. With highs such as defeating Kansas in Phog Allen Fieldhouse, to lows frustrating losses like losing on the road at Arkansas and Auburn, without a healthy line-up. Kentucky finished off the regular season with a bang, as Oscar Tshiebwe had yet another outstanding performance, with 27 points and 14 rebounds.

Back on the Downswing 

A common theme would be that Kentucky could just not stay healthy. TyTy Washington would go down with an injury in both the Florida home games, and the Auburn away game.  As mentioned above, Sahvir Wheeler went down against LSU and would also come out of the game at Auburn, and Tennessee.

This left UK without their starting backcourt for what ended up being 2 games, rematches against the Alabama Crimson Tide and LSU Tigers, Quad 1 opponents inside of Rupp Arena. Both games, The ‘Cats would not get off to great starts, but found a way to fight back and take the wins, with TyTy  Washington and Sahvir Wheeler returning for the final 3-game stretch of the season.   

Postseason Hopes

Going into the postseason, UK was favored by many to win the SEC Tournament. That however, did not come into fruition. After a less than stellar defensive performance against 11th seeded Vanderbilt, the ‘Cats would end the tournament with one of the more disappointing offensive performances of the season. All due credit to Tennessee, but shots that would normally fall, just were not for Kentucky. Kentucky would be down by more than 15 at several points in the game, but fought hard to make it a 2 possession game with less than a minute left, but ultimately fell 69-62. 

Kentucky’s focus then turned towards the NCAA tournament. The ‘Cats were picked as the #2 seed in the east region, taking on #15 seeded Saint Peter’s. However, the tournament did not quite go as planned. The game would end up being another frustrating loss, this one, in the worst possible time. Shots just hadn’t seemed to be falling, and defense was not up to its typical John Calipari standard, whatsoever. 

Season’s End

It seemed that injuries derailed this team. They were never able to get back to what they were beforehand, which was a national title contending team. Expectations were high, as always, for this group of Wildcats to win the national championship in March. They had shooting, passing, driving ability, and if they could’ve put it all together on the defensive end,things could have been a whole lot different. However, things don’t always work out the way you want to. Adversity was a very common theme throughout this year, and the Wildcats could just not overcome it.