Kentucky finds a positive side in their early SEC tournament elimination as the season turns upside down
Kentucky’s rollercoaster ride of a basketball season didn’t clear up Friday night.
Why should it at this point?
A Wildcats team that has seen more ups and downs than any in recent history met another bump in its postseason opener, an 80-73 loss to Vanderbilt in the Southeastern Conference Tournament Quarterfinals.
That loss came immediately after the Cats traveled to Fayetteville and — without a point guard — managed to upset the Arkansas Razorbacks on their home court. That win came three days after the same Vanderbilt team that defeated Kentucky in the SEC tournament ruined the Wildcats’ Senior Night at the Rupp Arena. Etc.
UK will hear his name on Sunday night when the NCAA tournament field is announced. That was in doubt a month ago, before the Cats — then on the wrong side of the bubble — won four straight games to right their season at just the right time.
John Calipari and his Wildcats have been talking about making their own history for the past few months. And which Kentucky team makes an appearance in March Madness will be the story of this season.
On Friday night, some of the same weaknesses that plagued these cats flared up again.
UK only made 11 of 20 free throws. Vandy was 18-20 and beat the Cats at the line by seven points, the last margin of the win. Kentucky gave up ride after ride on the brink, allowing the Commodores to get in the paint and score. The Cats struggled to defend the three-point shot, especially in the first half, then couldn’t make threes of their own at the other end and only went 6-for-25 from the deep.
Vandy ended up making big shots at opportune times. Kentucky, not so much.
“They were playing dagger games,” said Jacob Toppin from the UK. “We couldn’t hit any dagger games. That’s why they won the game.”
The loss dropped Kentucky to 21-11 for the season. The Cats are now 1-4 in their last five SEC tournament games. But that’s not the tournament that counts. The one that does starts next week and if Britain’s early departure from Nashville has any silver lining, then this battered squad now has two extra days – and two fewer games of attrition – to prepare for the big one.
“It sucks to lose. Of course we wanted to win,” said Toppin. “But yeah you can see the bright side and say we have more time for guys to get healthy and work on their bodies. We can watch films and understand what we need to improve on to be ready for the tournament.”
Another plus for Kentucky: Freshman point guard Cason Wallace returned to the court Friday night. Wallace sat out last weekend’s game in Arkansas after injuring his ankle in the defeat to Vanderbilt in the UK home final.
Wallace, a proposed NBA lottery pick, could have sat out Friday’s game as well. He did not do it. Why not give yourself that extra break to prepare for the NCAA tournament?
“Because I want to play every game I can,” Wallace said. “I feel like I’m a good part of the team and I’ll do whatever it takes to help us win. … I feel like if I can play, I will play. I will not sit out any game that I can attend.”
Wallace played 37 minutes on Friday night. He once limped onto the bench after bumping his knees with a Vanderbilt player but – after receiving treatment there – was right back on the court after the next time-out. Physically, he said he would be fine for the UK NCAA tournament opener.
“More than anything, I’m upset that we lost,” he said. “I’m fine though.”
CJ Fredrick continued playing despite a painful rib injury and stayed 14 minutes off the bench. Toppin also suffered an undisclosed injury earlier in the week – Calipari said he only trained once before Friday’s game – and managed 21 points and 11 rebounds in 38 minutes.
Sahvir Wheeler was sidelined for the ninth game in a row. Wheeler injured his ankle last month and hasn’t played since. He also had a “minor surgery” – according to Caliparis’ description – separate from his ankle injury last week, which extended his recovery time. The British coach said Wheeler “went through some practice stuff” earlier in the week.
“So I think he’s getting closer,” Calipari said. “Hopefully he can give us a few minutes.”
Obviously time is of the essence. And from here, a loss ends the season.
Calipari said after Friday’s loss that this Kentucky team plays better when they have nothing to lose.
“You can’t worry about how you’re playing if you miss a shot,” he said. “You just join the team and do what the team asks of you. If we play like that, we’re as good as anyone else in the country.”
When it was pointed out that some of Kentucky’s biggest wins this season followed losses, Calipari smiled all night for the first time.
“We’ll talk about that right here,” he said. “Every time we’ve spilled something – and the whole country rushes us – it seems like they’re coming back with a vengeance. That is the plan. We’ve been beaten. And some of the games we’ve beaten it’s not like we’ve been beaten by a hundred. It’s a bucket here or a bucket there and you get hit.
“But learning how to win is also a big part of it. We’ve won some really good games against really good teams.”
That’s the only thing that will keep the season going in Kentucky.
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