Kentucky’s NCAA Tournament fate was sealed literally on four straight offensive possessions Friday versus Vanderbilt. After having cut the Commodores’ lead to 12 (a bad sign in and of itself…falling behind over 20 points to any SEC team with a partisan UK crowd at the SEC Tournament is bad), UK began to tighten up its defense and Vanderbilt went slightly cold for the first time in the game. On four straight plays, the Cats executed their offense well and had easy opportunities to convert and cut the Vanderbilt lead to three. Alex Poythress missed the front end of a one-and-one, Willie Cauley-Stein did the same, Ryan Harrow avoided contact on a layup and ended up missing a bunny and Archie Goodwin barely drew contact on a wide open three. Four possessions that had been executed to get a GREAT look at points, ended up with self-made errors that ended any reasonable hope of a miraculous run. Kentucky lost the game by a significant margin, and with that loss, their time on the wrong side of the bubble ended permamently.
However while the Vanderbilt stinker may have been the literal end to the Tournament hopes (along with the home losses to Baylor/Texas A&M and the clunker at Georgia), the roots of the failure started months before. While a myriad of explanations for UK’s failure to make the Tournament can be made, at its core, one truth suffices. This team simply didn’t have the right makeup to have success under John Calipari. The One and Done rule that Calipari is forced to master clearly can help win a championship. Teams can be constructed every year during the summer and fall, and by the end of the season, be ready to compete with the best of the best. It helps to have returning veterans who can contribute, but when a team has the dominance of the 2012 Champs, getting those veterans can be extremely difficult. But regardless of whether you have all newcomers, or a mix that includes experience, you have to have players of a certain mindset to execute that style. They have to have high basketball IQs (to overcome inexperience) and be unafraid of their more accomplished opponents. And to play that system with John Calipari, they also have to be tough, in order to deal with a Coach that considers toughness and overcoming adversity crucial components to a person’s character. Unfortunately, this team had too many guys who didn’t have all (or any) of these components.
The reality is that at times this year, this team played tentative, soft, timid and without anything resembling a Calipari team mindset. In key situations, virtually every player on the team not named Julius or Archie, went through stretches where they seemed unwilling to take a big shot or show the aggressiveness necessary for a big play. When the going got tough at home, and the BBN was on its feet urging the team on and giving confidence and support, many of these players hit their strides. But on the road, or in Tournament play, the confidence didn’t come from outside and the players were unable to summon anything from within to make the big plays and rise to the challenge. It isn’t that the team was not filled with talented players…a number of these guys have NBA futures whether now, or in the near future…but collectively they didn’t have the makeup to go into battle and come out on the other side successfully.
The Vanderbilt game was one of the most difficult I have ever watched as a UK fan. It seemed like a 2 hour slog through the mud, with the Cats unable to do virtually anything right, while Vanderbilt couldn’t do anything wrong. Even with fans trying to use the collective force of their desire for victory to change the outcome, once Kentucky got down in double digits, it never was unable to cut the lead even under 10. It was honestly sad to watch and helped the streets of Nashville to have a Big Blue Depression that cost not only the fans, but the city’s economy a great deal. From that moment on, I realized that not only would UK likely not make the Tournament, I couldn’t get outraged about it as well. We as UK fans wanted this team to succeed mightily and even left a rather low bar for such success. With everyone confident that another magical year awaits in 2013-2014 (and yes, I still firmly believe that), this was a holdover year, where as the season progressed, a NCAA Tournament bid and good effort in the Dance would have sufficed. Unfortunately, not even that was this team’s destiny as they succumbed to the defeatist ending that almost seemed inevitable at various points during the season.
At the end of the day, one could quibble about the Committee’s final decision to leave Kentucky out of the field of 68. A strong case can be made that Middle Tennessee State, isn’t really Tournament worthy, despite their #29 RPI ranking, due to their inability to beat anyone besides Ole Miss ranked in the Top 100. And you could also make the case that the Tournament Committee’s rationale (voiced by the Chair Mike Bobinski) that what hurt UK were its “double digit margins” in road losses, seems counter to what was told to me in Indianapolis, mainly that margin of defeat/victory is a relatively irrelevant factor. But I can’t get myself worked up about any time of NCAA Tournament Committee snub today. The Cats had a chance to make the Tournament and get past the Noel injury completely and they let it slip through their hands. The Chairman of the Committee, Mike Bobinski, said today that UK would have made it if they won “one or two games” in the SEC Tournament. Beating Vandy would have probably sufficed, but they didn’t do it. And thus, I won’t complain too loudly.
Look, this is embarrassing. We are going on the road to a school named Robert Morris to play on ESPN in a game that is the definition of “no-win situation.” But you know what? It is what it is, and at this point it is what UK deserves. With many chances to overcome adversity and reach its goal, Kentucky was unable to do either. Many factors contributed to this occurrence, but the result is still the same. A John Calipari team didn’t play like a John Calipari team and now it ends up in a very un-John Calipari environment. The Cats return to Calipari’s hometown to play in a 3,000 seat gymnasium against a school only hardcore college basketball fans would even know existed. We wish it were otherwise, but after the six month journey this season, it is the deserved result.
Oh and by the way, you can get tickets for $15 at the Robert Morris ticket box office in the morning by calling 412-397-4949. So if you live in Pittsburgh or the surrounding area, you got that going for you…which is nice. Radio tomorrow from St Matthews Mall in Louisville…I am sure UL fans are going to be very considerate.