BOZICH | Rock Bottom? Better Be For Sinking Kentucky
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Losing to Michigan State and North Carolina? It happens. Losing at Louisiana State? Strange, but not outrageous.
Losing twice to Arkansas, including once in Rupp Arena? Now lights are starting to flash.
But losing by five points (72-67) to South Carolina, a 10-point underdog as well as a team that started Saturday with three victories in the Southeastern Conference?
Is this rock bottom for a Kentucky team that was expected to dance, sing and entertain its way to at least an SEC championship? It'd better be.
It's tough to imagine a less impressive performance than this. The debate is already underway:
Was this group wildly overrated (yes) or are they major underachievers that John Calipari has not been able to coach (yes)? Or both (yes)?
In the aftermath of the loss, Kentucky dropped to No. 24 in the Pomeroy computer rankings, one spot behind Tennessee. The Wildcats are 18th in the RPI. The Sagarin ratings had not been updated by 9 a.m. Sunday.
No wonder Calipari decided to watch the final 10 ½ minutes from the locker room after he was ejected.
"I wish I didn't get thrown out of the game, so that I could fight with our team," Calipari said in quotes that were distributed by the school's media relations staff after he declined to attend his post-game press conference.
It's officially a five-star meltdown for the Wildcats, who have now lost back-to-back games for the first time this season. They're 11-5 in the SEC. But at 21-8 the Wildcats are only one victory ahead of the pace of the 2013 team that had already lost Nerlens Noel on the way to the NIT.
It was absolutely the Wildcats' worst loss the season, an unmistakable smudge that is likely to knock Kentucky down another line on the NCAA Tournament seeding bracket. Six seed?
Some will say it is the worst loss of John Calipari's five seasons in Lexington. Hard to argue. South Carolina lost to South Carolina Upstate and Texas A&M. The Gamecocks had lost their last three SEC games, including their last two by 17 to Georgia and 16 to Auburn.
"We have a short turnaround to prepare for Alabama so we have to get back in the gym Sunday and start working on getting better," Calipari told the UK media relations staff.
"Proud of the guys for not giving up but we all have to figure out what do we each have to do to get this team right. We have to continue to believe in ourselves and each other and I know our fans are fighting with us."
What didn't go wrong? That would be a shorter list.
The Wildcats could not make shots. They made only 14 of 52 field-goal attempts, less than 27 percent. Julius Randle was 1 for 7, finishing with 10 points. Aaron Harrison scored 21 points, but missed 12 of 16 shots while getting that total. Kentucky scored only one more point from the field (34) than it did from the free throw line.
The Wildcats forced shots, especially driving to the rim, the way the Harrison Twins have for much of the season. ESPN analyst Jimmy Dykes called the approach "guarding yourself," by trying to squeeze into gaps that did not exist while hoping to be rewarded with a call from the officials. Didn't happen.
The Wildcats did not defend – at least not for the first 30 minutes. It took the Calipari ejection to stir the Kentucky players into dogging South Carolina ball-handlers the way they needed to be dogged.
The Wildcats earned three technical fouls – one on the bench, the other two by Calipari, who was ejected with 10:25 to play. The Wildcats trailed 53-39 when Calipari came on to the court, got called for the technical and then took a hard left turn toward the UK locker room.
The Wildcats fought back to cut the lead to 59-56. Then after South Carolina moved the lead out to 68-61 with 33 seconds to play, Kentucky made another surge. Aaron Harrison made a three. Then James Young knocked loose a steal, tipped the ball to Alex Poythress, who flipped it to Julius Randle. Randle scored and was fouled. His free throw cut the lead to 68-67.
But South Carolina's Sindarius Thornwell made two free throws.
Alex Poythress had a three-pointer from the left wing to tie it, but left it short. South Carolina was awarded the basketball on a review after it was knocked out of bounds. South Carolina finished it off with two more free throws before the Gamecocks' fans decided it was time to make a $50,000 donation to the SEC office by storming the court.
The Wildcats had Calipari shaking his head at their lack of determination to play though contact.
Now Kentucky comes home for Senior Night on Tuesday before traveling to Gainesville next Saturday to play SEC champion Florida. Then comes the post-season. Considering the way the Wildcats played this week, you wonder how long they'll be around for that.
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