For seven glorious minutes, it was Jon Hood’s world and we were all just living in it. Hood scored four points, pulled down three rebounds and looked poise to take the throne as the King of Madisonvil–
Oh wait, it’s not that kind of recap? Damn. If you wanted the positive stuff from tonight’s game, you might as well stop there.
After Kentucky’s devastating 72-62 loss to Georgia, Willie Cauley-Stein slumped against the wall in Stegeman Coliseum and searched for answers. His team had just lost a must-win game on the road against a mediocre Georgia team, but in reality, the biggest opponent may lie within. Cauley-Stein echoed the ominous issues that have simmered under the surface all season: certain players on this squad just don’t want to change. “You can’t coach a mentality. …You’ve got to want to do it. If you don’t want to do it, then that’s how it is. You’re not going to change and it’s going to continue to kill us in the end.”
It’s not hard to figure out what he was talking about. Alex Poythress was the main offender, playing 19 minutes and only scoring four points and grabbing four rebounds. If Alex wasn’t in the game, he was on the bench with Cal in his ear. At times in the second half, it was clear he had given up and was just going through the paces. Ryan Harrow wasn’t much better, and Cal was so disappointed in his effort in the first half that he told Ryan to go out “take 20 shots” in the second half. “Just go play. I don’t need you being tentative.” Harrow showed some signs of life, but ultimately fouled out on a dumb play with three minutes left.
Kyle Wiltjer? Essentially a non-factor, minus a few late threes. Julius Mays? Didn’t score a single point, although he appeared to be hampered by an injury late in the game. Everyone says strong guard play is the key to this team, but poor shooting was their Achille’s heel tonight. Kentucky shot a dismal 37.1%, with their two sharp-shooters, Kyle Wiltjer and Julius Mays, combining for 5-20 from the floor. How do you know things are bad? When you’re forced to rely on Archie Goodwin to hit threes.
About Archie. Archie’s got his issues and more than his fair share of “OMG dumb” moments (including an absolutely epic one in the second half), but he was one of the few players that didn’t give up tonight. He saw his team in trouble and once again tried to put them on his back, but unfortunately it was too late. For some reason, when the team is down by double digits, Archie enters “savior mode” and all the infuriating shots that usually don’t go in do. Archie was brutally honest in his postgame remarks to the media, which may say more about the emotional state of this team than any box score would. When asked what he would say to the fans that have given up on this season, Archie said he wouldn’t blame them: “If we haven’t changed over the direction of the season, it doesn’t look like anything’s going to change. …We’re not giving them a reason to believe in us.”
What’s the difference between the team that beat Missouri and the team that lost so badly tonight? That’s a question that even stumped Cal. “Hmm, how much time do I have? What time does the bus leave?” Cal reiterated that some players on the team just don’t have the will to win, nor understand that they have to prove themselves. In typical Cal fashion, he took the blame for this squad’s problems: “I am so disappointed in the job I’ve done with this team, I can’t even tell you. If this is the point we’re at, what I saw tonight, I’ve done a crap job.”
To their credit, Willie Cauley-Stein and Archie Goodwin said that tonight’s loss was on themselves and that this has nothing to do with Cal. But, according to Cal, they’re the only ones that are willing to do that: “That’s two out of twelve.” Cal mused that he’s never had a team that’s played less cohesively than this one, which was all the more apparent listening to Willie and Archie talk about their teammates.
Logistically, what caused the Cats to lose? Poor shooting, defensive breakdowns and letting Georgia out-muscle them under the basket. What really killed the Cats? A lack of discipline and will to win. Cal said this team doesn’t have the discipline to close out games, which he blamed himself for, but ultimately, it comes down to the players on the court and how much they want it. Not many of them did tonight.
Where do we go from here? Kentucky has two chances to extend their season: beat Florida on Saturday and/or win the SEC Tournament. After tonight’s pathetic performance, the likelihood of Kentucky pulling either of those off is low. The Cats had the opportunity to secure the #2 seed in the SEC Tournament on a silver platter. The atmosphere was primed for it, with over 50% of the fans wearing blue. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope even tried to help them out, going cold in the second half. But Kentucky turned their back on the opportunity and walked out the door. The fatal flaws that have plagued them all season have become their identity, and if the postgame remarks are any indication, there is some serious separation behind the scenes.
There’s plenty to play for. On Saturday, the program will say goodbye to Twany Beckham and Julius Mays, who, despite a bad night, has gone above and beyond what was expected of him in his one short year. Willie said he hopes they can give him the sendoff he deserves: “I hope it clicks. I really do. I feel bad for our seniors, especially Julius. I want him to go out feeling like he played his best and got to the tournament.” Even more haunting were Willie’s words about the uncertainty that comes with the off-season and the possibility that some his teammates, other than the seniors, won’t be around much longer.
Sure, as Cal said, “beat Florida Saturday at noon and this all goes away,” but this group only has 36 hours to remedy some serious problems. Judging by the looks on the players’ faces as left Stegemen Coliseum, it may already be over.