By Les Johns | @KernelJohns
This UK basketball season is so delicate and fragile that one 40-point performance by an individual opponent and one four-minute period of poor execution could derail the Cats’ NCAA seeding — and even have some questioning if they will make the Big Dance.
Jerry Palm, a CBSSports.com bracketology expert, has the Cats as a 12-seed playing in the opening-round game in Dayton — which many call a “play-in” game. This projection, mind you, was before the home loss Saturday to Texas A&M.
When he updates his field, don’t be surprised to see the Cats excluded from the festivities.
“I think we’ll be fine,” UK head coach John Calipari said when asked about his team’s tournament outlook. “You’ve got to win games. We don’t need to worry about anybody else. Just be the best team in the gym and do what we are supposed to be doing.”
That is what Calipari focuses on — he doesn’t get too high over the wins and doesn’t get too negative with the losses. He is focused on having the best team possible by March.
“It’s still early January. It’s going to be another month before this team comes together,” Calipari said. “I just hope we are winning enough games as we learn to do this.”
UK sophomore guard Ryan Harrow thinks the Cats will be fine and will have no problem making the field of 68.
“I don’t think that’s going to be a problem,” Harrow said. “We still have a lot of time and we still have a lot of games. We’re always supposed to make the NCAA Tournament, so we have to keep that attitude. Coach (Calipari) is going to figure this out, and we just have to buy into it.”
Confidence aside, this was a game the Cats couldn’t afford to lose. The SEC has just two teams ranked in the AP Top 25, and many lower-tier teams with dreadful non-conference losses.
ESPN’s Jay Williams said during the College GameDay show Saturday that the SEC is the eighth best conference in the country, ranking leagues such as the Atlantic 10 and Mountain West higher.
Going into the conference schedule, it was reasonable to expect the Cats could only afford to lose to Missouri, Florida and maybe Ole Miss when they face the Rebels in Oxford, Miss.
Less than three weeks ago, this same Texas A&M team dropped a 53-51 home contest to Southern University of the Southwestern Athletic Conference.
So how did the Cats drop the conference home opener, the first home conference loss in the Calipari Era, to a 16-point underdog?
Texas A&M guard Elston Turner’s 40 points had a lot to do with it, as the most points an opponent has scored against the Cats in Rupp Arena since LSU’s Chris Jackson hit 41 in 1990.
“That performance — that’s as good as it gets, the way he shot the ball,” Calipari said.
Turner scored 25 on 10-of-13 shooting in the first half to lead the Aggies to a five-point lead at the break.
UK freshman guard Archie Goodwin began the second half defending Turner, face-guarding around and over picks and set plays trying to free him.
For 10 minutes, the defensive strategy worked, and the Cats had pulled even in front of a rollicking Rupp Arena partisan crowd.
“I just stayed close to him, chased him off screens and made sure that wherever he was, I was right there,” Goodwin said. “I chased him behind on screen and he hit a jumper, then I got subbed out and he hit another three. His confidence returned back to where it was in the first half.”
Turner, netting 15 points in the final 10 minutes of the game, finishing with 40 points on 14-of-19 shooting. He was a perfect 6-of-6 from the free-throw line, grabbed six rebounds and dished four assists.
The other factor leading to the loss was giving up a huge run. Thursday night in Nashville, the Cats allowed an 18-0 Vandy run but were able to squeak out a victory.
Saturday against the Aggies, it was a 16-1 run that did them in. Leading 62-58 with six minutes remaining and with the crowd providing the best home environment of the season, the Cats fell apart.
“It was a situation I talked to the team about yesterday. Gut time, stop the runs, stop the bleeding,” Calipari said. “This team went on a 16-1 run, and you’re not winning that way, and it’s both on offense and defense.”
Harrow said the team made several bad decisions, especially on defense, during that stretch.
“We were up by four with only three minutes to go. That’s when we have to be disciplined and make the right decisions,” Harrow said. “We were a little excited that we were up, and we just wanted to make that big play.
“It’s basketball. You have to have that determination to get a stop. None of us did that today.”
This loss makes the road ahead much tougher for the Cats, a team that still hasn’t found its identity 15 games into the season.
Calipari said he believes the team will fully resemble a finished product in February. Many more losses in January — a month where the Cats should have gone without a loss — and the Cats will find themselves in a spot where they will have to win the SEC Tournament to earn an NCAA bid.
“I hope it doesn’t mess with anybody’s confidence, because we have been working so hard,” Harrow said. “We have to keep guys’ morale up in the next practice and get focused for the next game.”
So despite freshman forward Nerlens Noel having the best game of his short UK career (15 points, 11 rebounds, seven blocks and six assists), the Cats suffer their most damaging loss of the season.
A four-minute run and a career performance seems to have shifted the entire postseason discussion.