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Keith Taylor: Cats’ 2022-2023 season has to rate as disappointing given recent NCAA tourney drought

Kentucky hasn’t been to the Final Four in eight years and has won just one NCAA Tournament game in the past four years.

For a program that reached the national semifinals four times in John Calipari’s first six seasons at Kentucky, the Wildcats have struggled to replicate anything close to that in the last half of his tenure.

For the second time in the past three seasons, Kentucky lost more than 10 games and failed to win a Southeastern Conference — tournament or regular-season title — for the third straight season.

Kentucky forward Chris Livingston leaves the court after the Wildcats’ second-round loss to Kansas State Sunday (Photo by Chris Carlson, AP, via Kentucky Today)

Kentucky opened the season ranked as high as fourth but losses to Michigan State, Gonzaga and UCLA proved to be costly and the Wildcats had to earn their way back into the rankings. All three of those programs are in the Sweet Sixteen.

Not only were those early setbacks hard to overcome, but the Wildcats suffered defeats in three of their first four conference games, including a three-point setback to South Carolina at home, a puzzling loss that maybe was a red flag. Kentucky swept Tennessee and split a pair of games with Arkansas. The Volunteers and Razorbacks, along with top-seed Alabama, are three of 16 teams still dancing in the NCAA Tournament. A win over the Volunteers following the disappointing loss to the Gamecocks helped Kentucky regain its swagger.

The team’s health was an issue from the opening tip and continued to be a problem throughout the season. Only two players — freshman Chris Livingston and senior Antonio Reeves — appeared in all 34 games. Guards Sahvir Wheeler, Cason Wallace, CJ Fredrick missed a combined 22 games.

Keith Taylor

Oscar Tshiebwe averaged a double-double with 16.5 points and 13.7 rebounds a game, but wasn’t the happy-go-lucky, fly-under-the-radar player he was a year ago and appeared more frustrated in the post as opposed to last season.

Defense was a big problem for the Wildcats and most notably, Kentucky lost two of three games to Vanderbilt, including a first-round exit in the SEC Tournament because of an inability to make defensive adjustments in crucial situations.

Jacob Toppin and Reeves, along with Tshiebwe, were the team’s top performers. Once Wallace discovered his role, he also proved to be a reliable weapon on both sides of the floor. But Wallace also had to overcome injuries down the stretch.

For one reason or another, Kentucky couldn’t put everything together despite having all the pieces intact to be successful. Injuries and issues with overall team chemistry were difficult hurdles to overcome.

Calipari is already looking ahead to next season and has a class full of heralded freshmen, similar to the early classes he signed during the first decade of his tenure in Lexington. Calipari has proven he can make a comeback and led the Wildcats to back-to-back Final Four appearances following an NIT appearance in 2013.

Despite his successes, especially early in his career at Kentucky, the pressure is on for Calipari to return the program to national prominence.

Keith Taylor is the sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at keith.taylor@kentuckytoday.com and via Twitter at keithtaylor21.

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