Two days after an underwhelming victory at Mississippi State earlier this month, Kentucky coach John Calipari insisted that his roster of ultra-talented freshmen and sophomores still had time to click.
"The team's getting better," Calipari said. "They're getting a better idea of how they've got to play to win. We're not hitting our stride yet, but we're still good enough to be one of the better teams.''
If there was still time on Feb. 11 for Kentucky to develop into the title contender we all once thought the Wildcats would be, that time is now rapidly running out. Selection Sunday is only 16 days away, and Thursday night's 71-67 overtime home loss to Arkansas suggests the gap between the nation's elite teams and the Wildcats isn't getting any slimmer.
This was an Arkansas team on the outskirts of the NCAA tournament bubble entering Thursday's game. This was an Arkansas team that had only won four SEC road games in two-plus seasons under Mike Anderson. And this was an Arkansas team that didn't even play a flawless game, turning the ball over 20 times, surrendering 26 offensive rebounds and shooting a mere 41.7 percent from the field.
Where Kentucky lost the game was in the final minutes of regulation after it had rallied from seven down at halftime and built a five-point lead behind the interior play of Willie Cauley-Stein (16 points, 13 rebounds). Rather than closing out the game and escaping with a victory, the Wildcats committed three turnovers, failed to finish at the rim and missed three of four free throws, two by James Young and one by Andrew Harrison.
Given new life on the road at a venue it hadn't won in since 1994, Arkansas capitalized in overtime. Forward Coty Clarke had seven of his 11 points in overtime including a go-ahead 3-pointer as the Razorbacks (19-9, 8-7) completed a season sweep of Kentucky and took a huge step toward reaching the NCAA tournament for the first time under Mike Anderson.
If Thursday's game was bigger for Arkansas since the Razorbacks needed it just to give themselves a chance to make the NCAA tournament field, that doesn't mean Kentucky had no incentive to win. This loss diminishes the Wildcats' chances of earning a top-three seed and leaves them trending toward a No. 5 or 6 seed unless they either win at Florida on March 8 or win the SEC tournament the following week.
Kentucky can still make a deep NCAA tournament run from that seed line considering the wealth of talent on its roster, but it's becoming more difficult to envision the Wildcats performing with the consistency necessary to do so.
Too many guys have a habit of disappearing for a game or two at a time. Too many guys are content with one-on-one forays to the rim rather than team-oriented offense. And then on Thursday night, the Wildcats guards were all too quick to attempt highlight-worthy lob passes rather than simply recognizing what the defense was giving and pulling up for a short uncontested jump shot.
So is there still time for Kentucky to figure it out? Can the Wildcats recover from a largely disappointing regular season with a memorable postseason? Calipari remains publicly optimistic.
"We're still one of those teams that has a chance to do something special," he said on his postgame radio show Thursday night on Lexington-based WHAS.
Maybe. But there's at least a half dozen teams and probably more that appear more likely to do it than Kentucky.
- Sports & Recreation