Kentucky's roller-coaster season ends with tears

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- From his hotel room 2,043 miles away in Danville, Ill., Rick Scruggs vowed to root hard Thursday for the same team he humiliated less than six months ago.

"I've been keeping up with Kentucky all year," said the Gardner-Webb coach, who was on his way to scout recruits at the Division II national junior college tournament. "And I'm guessing maybe they've been keeping up with us a little bit. But no doubt, I've been rooting for Kentucky all year. I've been a Kentucky fan forever."

Then he made a prediction.

"The way Kentucky is playing right now, I wouldn't pull against them winning the first round or two," Scruggs said.

So much for Scruggs' chances of winning his office pool.

Kentucky, slumming in its first-ever appearance as a No. 11 seed, is NCAA tournament history. Marquette beat the Wildcats 74-66, ending not only one of Kentucky's weirdest seasons (and that's saying something) but also one of the great postseason streaks.

Not since 1987 had Kentucky lost a first-round NCAA tournament game. That's 17 victories in all … 16 in a row, in case you're like every other Wildcats fan who proudly memorizes that sort of UK happy-feely info.

But the winningest program in college basketball history needs a hug, especially after Thursday's March Madness exit and after its first sub-20-victory season since 1990, when Rick Pitino and his hair gel worked the UK sideline.

It's not as though Kentucky was going to win the Final Four this year. But since when do the Wildcats return to Lexington this early? They were here long enough for a couple of pillow mints, another loss and a postgame box lunch. That's it.

"My last time putting this jersey on and playing for Kentucky," said senior guard Joe Crawford, who wept into a towel as he sat in the UK locker room. "It seemed like it went by so fast. At the same time, Coach reminded me that we went through a lot this year."

Crawford did everything he could to extend Kentucky's stay, but he's only human, I think. He scored 35 points, including five 3-pointers, with half of the Marquette roster and part of the student section draped over him.

But it's never a good thing when just two players (Crawford and senior guard Ramel Bradley) combine for 54 of your 66 points. Only one other Kentucky player (Perry Stevenson) even scored a field goal. It was basketball suicide. But now it's finished.

"It was better than I expected," said Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie of his first season. "It was fantastic. I mean, as far as wins and losses, no. I thought we would win more games."

Cats fans pop out of the womb expecting Kentucky to reach at least the Sweet 16. But Gillispie's debut year will be remembered for its undulations more than anything else. Up. Down. Up. And, thanks to Marquette, down.

"A roller coaster," Stevenson said of the season.

There is no shame in losing to Marquette. The Golden Eagles play with all the subtlety of a crowbar to the forehead. They don't play defense as much as they play man-to-man combat -- and I mean that in a good way. They attached themselves to the waistbands of Kentucky's game shorts and didn't let go, which makes Crawford's career-high-tying 35 points even more impressive.

But the Wildcats' margin of error was thinner than a strand of net cord. It has been that way all season.

"You don't want your season to end like this," said Kentucky's Ramon Harris, whose face was streaked with tears. "You don't want to see [the seniors'] last time they wear their jerseys to be the first round of the NCAA tournament."

Few teams endured more strangeness than Kentucky in the past 12 months. Indiana and Arizona come to mind, but that's about it.

First there was the departure of Tubby Smith, who bolted Kentucky after 10 years, 263 wins and one national championship for … Minnesota? But Smith was essentially Dead Coach Walking, thanks to his eroding support within Big Blue Nation. He was replaced by Gillispie, who couldn't leave Texas A&M fast enough.

Life was wonderful until the second game of Gillispie's UK career. That's when Scruggs and Gardner-Webb stun-gunned the Wildcats by 16 at Rupp Arena. The always-patient Kentucky fans poured out of Rupp as though their seats were on fire, but not before showering the team with boos.

"Never thought I'd hear Kentucky fans boo their team like that," Scruggs said, "but they were all over them that night."

Let's see: lavish courtship and wedding … one-game honeymoon … boos. Yeah, sounds like Kentucky, all right.

Kentucky was 7-9 after an overtime loss to Florida on Jan. 19. Then the unranked Wildcats won nine of their next 10 games, and 11 of their next 13, to barely squeeze into the NCAA tournament field. And they did some of it without the help of SEC Freshman of the Year Patrick Patterson, as well as sophomore Jodie Meeks. Both suffered season-ending injuries.

But even during the season's second-half resurgence, there were problems. Remember the Music City Massacre? Vanderbilt 93, UK 52.

Anyway, a week ago, who knew whether Kentucky was going to be in the NCAAs or the NIT. It was that close.

Kentucky's record 49th NCAA tournament appearance will be known for its briefness, little more. But Harris asked that Wildcats followers remember his team for more than its disappointing (for Kentucky) 18-13 record and quick departure.

"That we didn't let distractions or what people say determine what we do," he said. "My teammates never quit. I love my teammates and my seniors. I just wish it didn't end like this."

He wasn't alone. Just ask Scruggs.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.