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By David Schuh | @DSchuhKernel
UK head coach John Calipari spoke with a reserved optimism Tuesday in regards to his team’s chances at turning its season around.
“We can make what we want of this season,” he said. “We can be the story of the year. We can do that if (the players) choose to do that.”
That story would have to begin Wednesday night when UK hosts Vanderbilt.
After a 30-point loss to Tennessee in the first game without injured freshman center Nerlens Noel, maybe the lowest point in a season full of uncertainty, the Cats’ postseason hopes hang in the balance more with each passing night.
Joe Lunardi’s latest Bracketology on ESPN.com, updated Tuesday afternoon, shows UK as one of his “First Four Out” of the NCAA Tournament.
“I don’t like to have the mindset of our backs against the walls,” graduate student Julius Mays said. “When you play with that much pressure on you, you’re liable to play bad. I just want guys to play with a free mind, to know that we have work to do.”
UK narrowly beat the Commodores in Nashville, Tenn. in early January, 60-58. Noel had 13 points and seven rebounds, including a key basket late to give the Cats the close victory.
Since then, Vandy hasn’t been able to garner any momentum. They’ve lost five of their last seven games, and have won just one SEC road game this season.
More than ever, though, UK is focused on itself. Saturday’s blowout loss to the Volunteers was a wake-up call that there needs to be a change post-Noel, a conclusion that the players were bluntly forced to realize.
“Maybe we were a little shocked,” junior guard Jarrod Polson said of the loss. “We didn’t realize how much he affected (the game) on the defensive end … We’re trying to go over it and see what defense we can do now without him.”
Calipari is particularly looking for better play out of his backcourt. The typical UK starting guards (sophomore Ryan Harrow and freshman Archie Goodwin) combined for seven points and five turnovers on 2-of-11 shooting against Tennessee.
Polson could help in that regard, coming off a career-high 11 points in 22 minutes of play.
“Our guard play is shaky at best,” Calipari said. “We’ve got some issues to deal with, but the biggest thing is just battle, fight. You’ve got nothing to lose — go after it.”
Wednesday’s game will tip at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Rupp Arena. It will be televised locally on the SEC Network.