From the time the final second of Kentucky’s unexpected NCAA Tournament loss to Kansas State ticked off the Phillips Arena clocks last March, Quade Green says not one day has passed without his thinking about that 61-58 UK defeat.
“I use that as motivation. Every day,” the Kentucky sophomore guard says of the round-of-16 defeat. “Every day.”
When Nick Richards was making the decision about whether to turn pro or return to UK for his sophomore season, the 6-foot-11 center says a desire to write a better ending to a Kentucky season tugged at him.
“We were all a little ‘Man, we just lost to Kansas State in the Sweet 16,” Richards said. “When me, PJ (Washington) and Quade decided to come back, we were all thinking ‘national championship.’”
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The annual spectacle that is University of Kentucky men’s basketball Media Day came and went Thursday. In a wide-ranging session with reporters in a jam-packed Memorial Coliseum media room, UK Coach John Calipari praised the work of Mark Stoops and the No. 18 football Wildcats (5-1).
Responding to a question, Calipari proclaimed himself willing to appear, if asked, on the new podcast of former Louisville Coach Rick Pitino.
Cal demurred on the idea of bringing Pitino to Lexington to speak to the Wildcats team, however, due to the potential for distraction. “It would put North Korea on the back burner,” Calipari cracked.
One thing that made 2018 UK Media Day nice is that, once the player interviews commenced, there were actually some familiar faces. Three of Kentucky’s primary rotation players during last season’s 26-11 campaign are back in Lexington for another go-around.
UK will benefit from the experience that Green, Richards and forward PJ Washington gained a season ago on what was a freshman-dominated Cats roster.
The 2018-19 Wildcats also figure to gain from the pain the returning Cats felt when their previous season ended at the hands of a nondescript Kansas State squad in Atlanta in last season’s March Madness.
All three of the UK sophomores had reasons to feel regret over the loss to Kansas State.
Washington, in many ways, was the best player in that game. The 6-foot-8, 228-pound forward had 18 points, 15 rebounds and made five of seven field-goal attempts.
However, Kansas State realized it had no defensive answer for Washington on the block and turned to a “hack-a-Shaq” strategy against him.
It worked devilishly well, as Washington went 8-of-20 from the foul line.
“I don’t feel (anything) about that game. It’s in the past. I can’t change it,” Washington said. “I’m just trying to move forward and have a great season this year.”
With Kentucky down two inside the final 15 seconds, Green launched a rushed trey that missed badly.
Asked what lesson he had taken from the K-State defeat, Green said “something personal. I don’t want to say (what).”
Continuing a late-season trend of diminished playing time, Richards logged only eight minutes against Kansas State, finishing with one point and one rebound.
“You learn from it, figure out what the mistakes were and then just move on and hope you never make those mistakes again,” Richards said of his approach to getting past the loss.
Kentucky backers yearning for a return to the Final Four for the first time since 2015 should draw encouragement from having returning players who have known prior NCAA Tournament pain and now have that feeling as motivational fuel.
UK’s 2012 NCAA title team had three key players — senior Darius Miller plus sophomores Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb — back from the 2011 Cats who endured a gut-wrenching, one-point loss to Connecticut in the Final Four.
The Kentucky squad that reached the 2015 Final Four with a 38-0 record had seven of the top nine players back from the team that fell to UConn in the 2014 NCAA finals.
A similar “year after heartbreak” run is what the current UK veterans envision.
“You always want a better ending than falling in the Sweet 16,” Washington said. “We’re always striving to win the national championship here.”
Said Richards: “A lot of things didn’t go our way (in the Kansas State loss). A lot of calls didn’t go our way. But we can’t let that sidetrack us (in a game). That’s what we learned.”
For Kentucky basketball, the tournament pain that ended last season could contribute to postseason gain in the coming year.
Mark Story: (859) 231-3230; Twitter: @markcstory