Sitting at 8-14 on the year with just two games remaining on the schedule in Ole Miss and South Carolina next week, Kentucky’s opportunity for earning an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament are officially gone.
Better yet, the ever-so-slight chance UK could put together an argument that they may be deserving of an at-large bid – adding a high-major opponent to the schedule and finishing the season on a 9-0 run before losing in the SEC title game was the only way – is no more.
Smashed. Crushed. Disintegrated. Vanished. Zero-point-zero-percent chance.
Now, it’s SEC Tournament or bust for the Wildcats, who now must win four games in four days in Nashville after blowing their shot at a double-bye. Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, all wins to make the NCAA Tournament. The same Kentucky squad that has yet to win four games in a row this entire season.
“We’re definitely desperate now. We want to create this story,” sophomore forward Jacob Toppin said following the team’s 71-67 loss to Florida on Saturday. “We’ve been in a slump. We have our backs against the wall, so we want to just come out and attack. We want to be able to do something special, so we’re all focused on the main goal, which is doing something better than we did in the past.”
Despite the frustrating loss, the long-term impact and goals remain the same among coaches and players. The focus remains on the next game, and the next game only.
“It’s a loss. We’ve just got to take it on the chin and move forward,” Toppin said. “We’re getting better every day. We just have to take it one day at a time. Now, we’re worried about the next game.”
“It’s definitely not easy (losing close games), something I think about. It’s something that hopefully will pay off one day,” senior forward Olivier Sarr added. “I’m just trying to learn from these experiences and move on. … It’s one game. We still have a lot to prove and a lot to learn. We had a lot of mistakes. We’re going to take it one game at a time, make sure we’re not thinking two, three steps ahead, only thinking about the present moment.”
“We’re worried about Mississippi, I’m not worried about that other stuff,” UK head coach John Calipari said. “We’ve got to take one game and try to get better.”
While the team’s regular season goals will not be accomplished in the final two games against Ole Miss and South Carolina, the players still feel they have plenty to prove before calling it quits on the year, regardless of when that may be.
“We have to learn how to finish the last four minutes, learn how to close games like we did the last three games before that. Learn from our mistakes, whether that’s bad defensive coverage, execution, bad spacing,” Sarr said. “We just want to prove that we belong, that a winning streak can go on. Prove to ourselves that we can do that, we can do it as a team.”
“Now we just got to look forward, look into the future, just take it one game at a time from here and we’re in attack mode,” Toppin added. “So, we’ve just got to keep pushing, keep getting better and we’ve got to come out with ‘W’s.”
UK will head to Oxford to take on the Rebels on Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET.