The season began with promise and overwhelming hype. It ended with heartbreak. Between those two endpoints came a remarkable journey in which a group of young men came together and became a true team.
Isaiah Briscoe knew the season could be special right away. All it took was one play of an early scrimmage alongside new freshman teammates De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo.
“I remember like the first drill we did we were scrimmaging against the other team and I think Bam got the rebound, outlet it to me at half court, I think I dished it up to Fox and then Fox threw an alley-oop up to Malik,” Briscoe said. “It was just like that. The ball didn’t touch the ground. Then we all just looked around and started smiling at each other like, ‘Yo, OK, we see what we can do this year.’ It showed.”
Anxious to see their team, fans finally got a taste at Big Blue Madness on Oct. 14. It was the usual show, with pyrotechnics, dancing and high-flying dunks.
After the Blue-White Scrimmage, it was time for the Cats to test themselves against an opponent. They exploded for 264 points in two exhibitions, including a 156-63 win over Asbury.
Though UK would never hold another triple-digit lead, the Cats hardly slowed down once the regular season began. Ranked No. 2/4 in the preseason, Kentucky rose to No. 1 after dispatching each of its first seven opponents by at least 21 points. The closest victory came over Michigan State in the Champions Classic.
The opening stretch was punctuated by an utterly dominant 115-69 win over Arizona State in the Bahamas. In the game, Fox posted the second triple-double in school history. It wouldn't be the only one this season.
The first bump in the road came next, with UCLA ending UK's 42-game winning streak in Rupp Arena, 97-92. Even then, Monk predicted the loss would be "great" for UK, even "wonderful." Turns out he was right.
“Because we never got down like this or anything like that before,” Monk said on Dec. 3. “Seeing this is great for us.”
UK quickly got back on track with three straight victories, the last being arguably the best college basketball game of the season. The 103-100 classic vs. North Carolina also happened to feature one of the greatest individual performances in school history: Monk's 47-point outburst, capped by the game-winning 3.
The high wouldn't last for long, as UK lost its annual battle with archrival Louisville on the road, 73-70, to put a minor damper on Christmas in the Big Blue Nation. Nonconference play, however, had been a success.
Conference play started the same way, as UK reeled off seven straight wins. The end of the winning streak, however, was marked by some troubling signs. Opponents were beginning to adjust to the Cats' breakneck speed by cutting off open-floor opportunities. John Calipari noticed his team wasn't adjusting and its performance in other areas was beginning to suffer as well.
Then, UK was bitten. A loss at Tennessee started a stretch of three losses in four games, the last two coming to Kansas and Florida. All of a sudden, the Cats were 18-5, tied atop the SEC standings with the Gators and South Carolina, and facing questions from fans about whether they would ever reach their potential.
Coach Cal said on multiple occasions it had taken the Cats a few weeks to get into their rut. So too, he said, would it take them a few weeks to play themselves out of it.
Over the final eight games of the regular season UK showed signs of progress, but also took occasional steps back. Nonetheless, the Cats always found a way to win. On no night was that truer than the final game in Rupp Arena for seniors Derek Willis, Dominique Hawkins and Mychal Mulder.
It was already set to be a memorable evening, with a pair of beloved in-state players saying farewell. Then Willis went and proposed to his girlfriend
Maybe it was the after effects of the pregame engagements or more likely UK's late-season habit of starting slow, but Vandy raced out to a 25-9 lead in the game that followed. The Cats wouldn't let Senior Night be ruined though and took down the Commodores, 73-67.
Riding that eight-game winning streak, UK turned its attention to the postseason. The SEC Tournament was up first, with Cats fans once again painting Nashville, Tennessee, blue. Those fans were treated to a weekend of basketball that made it clear the Cats were hitting their stride at the right time.
Fox was the star of the show and won MVP honors as UK took down Georgia, Alabama and Arkansas but it was Hawkins who captured everyone's hearts. The Richmond, Kentucky, native had always dutifully accepted his role over four years, no matter what it was, but he took a turn in the spotlight in Nashville. His 14-point outburst in the SEC Tournament championship game vs. Arkansas cinched his spot on the All-Tournament team.
UK's run through the SEC Tournament extended the Cats winning streak to 11 games and locked up a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. A tough road awaited Kentucky in the South Region, with some of the nation's best teams scattered throughout. UK would first have to get past Northern Kentucky, which proved to be a challenge.
The Cats built a lead that grew to as large as 17 points, but the Norse wouldn't go quietly in their first NCAA Tournament appearance. UK's lead twice dwindled to seven points in the final minute, but Kentucky survived behind Adebayo's 15 points and 18 rebounds.
That set up a second-round showdown with No. 10 seed Wichita State, a team many believed to be underseeded. The Shockers proved that and gave the Cats all they could handle, but UK survived, 65-62. It was exactly the kind of defensive slugfest UK would not have been able to win mere months prior.
It was a back-and-forth battle throughout and came down to the final possessions. Monk and Adebayo preserved the victory by blocking 3-pointers on each of Wichita State's last two possessions.
That set up the Sweet 16 matchup most everyone pointed to when the field was unveiled: UK-UCLA. The two programs with the most national championships in the history of the sport would reprise their December duel.
For the Cats, it was a chance to prove exactly how far they had come in a process that, in many ways, began with that loss to the Bruins. Players spoke pregame about how defense would be the key. Then, during the game, they executed.
UK held Lonzo Ball and the high-powered Bruins to more than 15 points below their season average and Monk broke out of his mini-slump with a big second half. The true star of the show, however was Fox.
Fox was the best player on a floor full of stars, setting an NCAA Tournament record for points scored by a freshman with a 39-point outburst. With Fox closing the game out with clutch free throws, UK advanced, 86-75.
A fourth all-time Elite Eight matchup with top-seeded North Carolina was next. With a trip to the Final Four on the line, it was always going to be a dogfight.
Foul trouble hampered the Cats in the first half, with all three star freshmen eventually picking up two fouls. Stepping up in their stead was Hawkins, who wanted no part of seeing his career end in Memphis. Thanks in large part to his 10 first-half points, UK weathered the storm and trailed just 38-33 at halftime.
Fox, Monk and Adebayo returned in the second half to steady the ship, but it was a player who played fewer than 10 minutes per game on the season who was the star.
Sophomore 7-footer Isaac Humphries scored a career-high 12 points. His most memorable moments came in one stretch during which he scored eight of Kentucky's 10 points. The last of those points gave UK a 64-59 lead with five minutes remaining. The thousands of fans wearing Kentucky blue could sense victory.