Cats staring down unpleasant destiny

By Alex Forkner | @AlexFork3

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ATHENS, Ga. — When UK entered Stegeman Coliseum to face the Georgia Bulldogs, more was at stake than the outcome of the game. The Cats would be looking their NCAA Tournament destiny full in the face, needing a win to bolster their chances of finding a spot in the field of 68.

If the Cats were having a staring contest with that destiny, they just blinked.

A 72-62 loss has put the pressure on the Cats to either beat No. 11 Florida on Saturday or somehow win the SEC Tournament in Nashville next week if they want to avoid being left out of the NCAA Tournament a year removed from taking home the trophy.

This team is unlike any UK head coach John Calipari has coached in his 27 years on the sidelines. Never before has a Cal-coached basketball team been so out of sorts this late in the season.

“I’ve never had a team that’s not cohesive this time of year,” Calipari said. “Every one of them have been cohesive, every one of them had a will to win more than how we were playing, every one of them had a fight. Well, if this team doesn’t have that, that’s on me.”

But freshman forward Willie Cauley-Stein refused to put the onus on his head coach, choosing to focus on the mentality he sees in some of his teammates, an aspect of the game he said Calipari “can’t coach.”

“It’s the same stuff, just a different day,” Cauley-Stein said. “I’ve been saying it since we started this rough patch: You got to want to do it. You got to want to change. Guys aren’t willing to change. … You’ve got to want to do it and if you don’t want to do it you’re not going to change and it’s going to continue to kill us.”

But, with one regular season game left, and at least one game waiting in the SEC Tournament, is change even possible?

This team has never been what anyone has thought it was going to be. It’s never done what it’s needed to do when it needed to do it, save the glimmer of (false?) hope that was the Missouri victory.

Maybe it’s a matter of the coach failing to adapt to a unique team in a unique situation. Maybe it’s a matter of puzzle pieces that don’t quite seem to fit. Maybe it’s guys not “wanting it” enough, as Cauley-Stein put it after the loss.

UK has struggled with its identity all year long, going through early growing pains and encountering a whole new set of problems when Nerlens Noel was lost for the season.

Expectations for the Cats have been constantly recalibrated throughout this rollercoaster of a season.

Finally, with a week left in the season, a clear picture of who this team is begins to emerge — and it’s not pretty. The Cats are on the brink of punching a ticket to the NIT, unless they … “Beat Florida,” Calipari said. “Beat Florida and this all goes away.”