NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Some suggested Sunday night diversions for Kentucky fans:
Go to the movies.
Walk the dog.
Maybe a family game of Yahtzee.
Just avoid watching the NCAA tournament selection show at all cost. Odds are you won't enjoy it. It's highly unlikely you'll see your team's name flash on the screen as a member of the 68-team field.
Selection Sunday looks like Rejection Sunday for the defending national champions.
There is no compelling case to present to the selection committee for including the Wildcats. Not now. Not after the meltdown in Music City, a 64-48 drubbing at the hands of 16-16 Vanderbilt.
"We laid an egg and they played well," said Kentucky coach John Calipari, who followed his professional high point last year with what might be the worst coaching job of his accomplished career.
This was a profoundly bad time for egg laying. Kentucky (21-11) came here potentially needing just one victory to sew up a bid, in an arena that was turned blue, against a highly beatable opponent. It had to show the committee something – anything – away from Rupp Arena to close the deal.
The 'Cats showed the committee members something, all right. The 'Cats showed them what an NIT team looks like.
When center Nerlens Noel went down with a season-ending knee injury Feb. 12, selection committee chairman Mike Bobinski said of the Wildcats: "The reality is we have about 4½ weeks of basketball left to be able to watch Kentucky play and to see how they perform without him in the lineup now, and that will really tell the story I think of how we ultimately judge and view Kentucky."
Here is the evidence the 'Cats turned in: Four victories, all at Rupp Arena. Four blowout losses, all away from Rupp Arena. Numbers guru Ken Pomeroy told me Thursday he would estimate the post-Noel Wildcats would be in the 60-80 range in his rankings.
Beating Florida by four points was great. So was beating Missouri in overtime. But to be a tournament team, you have to accomplish something outside the comforts of your home gym.
Kentucky accomplished nothing outside the Lexington city limits in the past month. Worse than that, Kentucky was routed four times by teams that are unlikely to make the NCAA tourney themselves.
The 'Cats lost by 30 at Tennessee. The Volunteers, RPI of 55 as of Friday morning, are probably on the wrong side of the NCAA bubble.
The 'Cats lost by 13 at Arkansas. The Razorbacks, RPI of 92, are hoping they're good enough for the NIT.
The 'Cats lost by 10 at Georgia. The Bulldogs, RPI of 138, are 15-17 and done for the season.
And the 'Cats lost here Friday night by 16 on a neutral court that was actually a UK home court. The Commodores, RPI of 117, are a hot team right now, but they're also 16-16 and have a cache of terrible losses on their record.
That's not exactly like being beaten by the top of the Big Ten or Big East. And in those beatings, the Wildcats were simply not competitive.
Kentucky led for a grand total of 40 seconds Friday night. It trailed for 37:27. It trailed by double digits for the final 21:46.
"We were stabbing ourselves in the eye most cases," Calipari said.
Fact is, Kentucky was Oedipus Rex over the past month away from home. This blowout loss was simply part of the pattern.
Time led at Tennessee: 30 seconds. Time trailed: 37:11. Time behind by double digits: the final 32:53.
Time led at Arkansas: 7:34. Time trailed: 31:53. Time behind by double digits: the final 18:14.
Time led at Georgia: 8:05. Time trailed: 31:35. Time behind by double digits: the final 4:55.
With losses like that, this season seems destined to end in the NIT – if the Wildcats can swallow their pride and accept the invite. The hardest part to swallow: this was the kind of thing that was never supposed to happen again at lordly Kentucky. Not after the program threw a mint at Calipari to deliver the program from mediocrity.
He did deliver, but not in perpetuity. He's also overseen one of the two most unsatisfying seasons since 1988-89.
Billy Gillispie was fired after two seasons for going to the NIT in Year 2. (And for being a hugely difficult person to deal with, but let's not kid ourselves about the importance losing played in making that decision.) Tubby Smith was derided by fans as Ten-Loss Tubby for having half his 10 seasons at UK end with double-digit losses.
Now Calipari likely has himself an NIT team. And 11 losses on the year. How will the fans handle those heresies this time around?
Calipari also has a championship ring, of course. And another Final Four. But the vision of endless glory has now run into the brick wall of reload reality.
Throwing together a team on the fly every year isn't going to work every time – and when it doesn't work, the results can be ugly. This team wasn't just young, it appeared dysfunctional and unenthused and unhappy much of the time. Adversity rarely brought out the best in these 'Cats.
Operation Reload may well work again next year, when Kentucky is bringing in another armada of hamburger All-Americans. But I suspect Calipari will make sure he has a few more veterans and a few more reliable bodies to balance out the roster, too.
The 2011 Final Four wouldn't have happened without Gillispie recruits DeAndre Liggins and Josh Harrellson. The 2012 title wouldn't have happened without Gillispie recruit Darius Miller and sophomores Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb.
So some of the current freshmen who arrived in Lexington billed as one-and-done material might be around for at least one more season. They would seem to need the seasoning, and Kentucky could certainly use the depth and experience – no matter how much talent the new guys possess.
But that's next year. Before turning the page to 2013-14, Kentucky fans have an NCAA tournament selection show to avoid at all cost. Yahtzee, anyone?
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