Cats, fans can now look to next season

UK forward Willie Cauley-Stein gets a rebound during the first half of the University of Kentucky men's basketball game vs. Robert Morris University during the National Invitation Tournament at Charles L. Sewall Center in Moon Township, Penn. on Tuesday, March 19, 2013. RMU won 59-57. Photo by Genevieve Adams | Staff

By Les Johns | @KernelJohns

ljohns@kykernel.com

MOON TOWNSHIP, Pa. — NBA mock drafts be damned, these Cats aren’t ready.

Erratic and sluggish regular-season play was validated with a postseason shutout, as the Cats dropped their opening contests in both the SEC and NIT tournaments.

These Cats weren’t ready for the NCAA tourney or the NIT — and the players now say they aren’t ready for the next level, either.

“If any of us said we should leave, we’d all be delusional,” freshman guard Archie Goodwin said after the 59-57 loss to Robert Morris at the Charles L. Sewall Center on Tuesday night.

Goodwin, often maligned for his decision making and quick trigger, nearly brought the Cats back from the dead in the second half, leading the Cats in both scoring (18 points) and rebounds (seven).

But Goodwin’s play was the exception, not the norm Tuesday, or the Cats would have come away with a win against the 10-loss team from the Northeast Conference.

RMU’s tallest player was 6-foot-9, yet 7-footer UK freshman forward Willie Cauley-Stein captured just four rebounds in 36 minutes of play.

Freshman forward Alex Poythress grabbed just two in 27 minutes of play.

How does that happen? The Cats were outplayed physically, as has been the case much of the season.

“Robert Morris played a great basketball game,” UK head coach John Calipari said. “They played a physical, tough, hard-nosed basketball game.”

The Colonials fought, scratched and clawed — literally — early and often. They were whistled for 13 team fouls in the first half, and the referees didn’t call nearly as many as they could have.

Robert Morris got in the Cats’ physical space and never allowed them to move, and subsequently the Cats (once again) were unable to find an offensive rhythm.

It literally seemed to take the Cats getting smacked in the mouth to get serious about competing. Goodwin drew a flagrant foul, which led to the ejection of Robert Morris’ Lucky Jones, and capped an 11-0 run to even the game.

If junior guard Jarrod Polson had not intervened, things would have gotten out of hand between Goodwin and Jones.

But that roused Goodwin’s competitive juices, and he showed more toughness than the entire season.

The effort still came up short, and Goodwin was visibly still fuming many minutes after the game was complete.

A microcosm of the season, the effort level for the Cats on Tuesday just came too late — digging themselves a 10-point hole to start the game and a 13-point hole late in the second half.

The holes in the season started to get too big and too wide after home-court losses to Baylor and Texas A&M. Those losses dropped the Cats out of the rankings and shook their confidence.

“People were saying we’re not good,” Cauley-Stein said. “People were saying that was the first loss we had at Rupp — winning streak, blah blah, blah. It’s just a snowball effect from there.”

Now the Cats enter what will be the most fascinating off-season of roster moves since Calipari built his first roster around John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins.

“I feel like something is missing — an empty feeling in my gut, and I want to fill it,” Cauley-Stein said. “I want to win a national championship. I have unfinished business here.”

Emotional and disappointed freshmen pledged a desire to continue their collegiate careers, saying they weren’t ready for the NBA.

Their play seems to augment their dispositions, but the NBA drafts more on potential than production and when post-game chatter changes to individual draft analysis there may be many changed opinions.

As the losses began to pile on this year, many blue-clad fans moved their basketball clock forward to next season — virtually proclaiming an undefeated national championship squad was on its way.

Those fans can now rejoice, for that season started Tuesday night.