Kentucky's Nerlens Noel blocks shot by Alabama's Devonta Pollard (Getty Images)If Kentucky's title run last season is proof a team full of one-and-dones can come together and capture a championship, this season's struggles are a reminder that relying heavily on freshmen won't always turn out well.
Alabama dealt the Wildcats their latest reality check Tuesday night, storming back from a nine-point halftime deficit to send Kentucky to a deflating 59-55 road loss. As a result, the once far-fetched idea that Kentucky could miss the NCAA tournament a year after cutting down the nets suddenly doesn't seem so unlikely anymore.
At 12-6 overall and 3-2 in SEC play, the Wildcats would be fortunate to sneak into the NCAA tournament if the season ended today. They're a pedestrian No. 60 in the RPI – right between middling Villanova and small-conference South Dakota State – and their best win is a season-opening victory over a Maryland team no more certain to make the NCAA tournament than they are.
The most discouraging part for Kentucky is that the SEC won't afford them too many chances to secure resume-boosting wins in the coming weeks. Besides Florida (No. 6), Missouri (No. 27) and Ole Miss (No. 32), no SEC teams are even in the top 50 in the RPI right now.
Enough mediocre teams will make the field of 68 that Kentucky can still earn a bid with a solid final six weeks, but the Wildcats' chances of making another deep March run appear very bleak. A team that began the season No. 3 in the nation has so far fallen well short of expectations largely because every time it seems to solve a problem, a new one arises.
At the beginning of the year, Ryan Harrow lacked the confidence or aggression to assume the role of starting point guard. Once Harrow began showing signs of becoming more comfortable in that role, Alex Poythress began slumping and Kyle Wiltjer wasn't knocking down enough jump shots to justify having him on the floor defensively. And on Tuesday night, Wiltjer was Kentucky's most effective scorer, but Poythress couldn't stay out of foul trouble and the Wildcats' guard play let them down.
Harrow scored just six points on 2 of 12 shooting and dished out only two assists, a poor night for a kid who had scored in double figures his previous eight games. Archie Goodwin was even worse, displaying terrible shot selection in a seven-point, three-turnover, 2-for-12 shooting performance.
"Our guard play was not near their guard play," Calipari told reporters afterward. "Just wasn't. We reverted back to just throwing it to Kyle Wiltjer in the post to to try to keep the game close and give us a chance to win, and we had our chances. Archie, if they're not going to call those fouls, then he needed to pull up and shoot a runner. I just kept telling him."
Kentucky will need a healthy Willie Cauley-Stein and more consistency from the rest of its key players if its going to make a successful NCAA tournament push.
It's difficult to estimate how many more victories it will take to punch a ticket, but it's clear the Wildcats will probably have to eke out a couple wins against the teams ahead of them in the standings and avoid many losses to the teams below them.
At one point, it was a foregone conclusion Kentucky would make the NCAA tournament. Now the margin for error is getting slimmer by the week.
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