The biggest game of the year was here and it was on one of the toughest road courts in the NCAA, the O’Connell Center in Gainesville. Florida was the class of the SEC but had shown recent vulnerability, so there was cause for optimism for Kentucky. And a quick 4-0 start by Kentucky seemed to reaffirm that optimism, but the Gators answered with an 8-0 run. UK challenged UF early and took an 11-10 lead on a Archie Goodwin dunk, but the continual theme and problems was about to rear their ugly head.
Kentucky struggled against Florida’s pressure and the turnovers ensued. Combine that with the characteristic cold spell and Florida took a 10 point lead at 25-15 on a Scottie Wilbekin three pointer. Kentucky continued to struggle, missing easy shots inside and turning the ball over and Florida took a 38-25 lead at halftime. In the second half, Florida stretched the lead to 19 but Kentucky had one last rally left in them.
A Julius Mays three pointer cut the lead to 57-45 and Kentucky had a couple of possessions to get within double digits but could not. Then off a turnover, Florida’s Mike Rosario streaked down the court, seemingly wide open to convert on a lay up. But doing like he has done all year, Nerlens Noel gave chase and made a block of the Rosario shot on a patented hustle play. And in the course of that action, Noel’s knee crumpled and he collapsed to the floor of the court, howling in pain. After several minutes of silence punctuated by Noel’s screams of agony, his team mates made a human stretcher of sorts and carried him off the court. From then, the game was a blur as Kentucky, rightfully having lost focus, succumbed to the Gators by a 69-52 count.
The presence of Noel would not have affected this game anyway. Ryan Harrow played just 19 minutes and spent most of the game being yelled at by John Calipari. Alex Poythress went 1-9. And even though Willie Cauley-Stein led the team with ten points, he was manhandled most of the game by Patric Young. Sitting in the press seats, I was close enough to see a couple of things that do not translate on TV: the fear and uncertainty in Alex Poythress’s eyes and the horrible body language some UK players, especially Archie Goodwin, that displayed in the time-outs. It was obvious that players not only were not buying into Calipari’s system, they were ignoring it. And unfortunately the loss of the game was not the biggest loss.
The news after the game was not unexpected. Noel had torn his ACL and would miss the rest of the season. And Kentucky, somehow, had to replace not only his leadership, but his role as a human eraser who corrected so many of this teams defensive mistakes.
Four days later in Knoxville, Kentucky showed just how much they depended on Nerlens Noel as they were drubbed 88-58 by a 13-10 Volunteer team. It was more surprising to see where the leadership came from in this game: a player that averaged 6 points a game last year, a former walk-on, and a transfer from Wright State. Kyle Wiltjer, Jarrod Polson, and Julius Mays scored 41 of Kentucky’s 58 points. The possible NBA draft freshmen combined for 13 points and 7 of those were from Goodwin. Ryan Harrow was non-existent and scoreless for the second straight game and fouled out in just 18 minutes. It took Poythress 20 minutes to foul out.
The real eye opener after this game waas the comments of John Calipari. All season long he has made the comments of “I like my team” and even took the blame for several losses, putting it all on him rather than his players. After Tennessee, he unloaded and it was not hard to tell who he was talking about:
“But you know — We got a couple guys that are basically not real coachable. You tell them over and over and over what you want to do, what they have to do, and they do their own thing. That’s where we are. … We’re leaving every time out, this is what you must do, boom, boom, boom. Then the guy comes out and does the opposite three things.”
And for Kentucky fans who so love to name their memorable teams, there was a nickname for this team: The Uncoachables.
The frustration was evident after the Tennessee game as Willie Cauley-Stein sent out a tweet complaining about the “fake fans” at UK. Clearly the season was in a tailspin and something big needed to happen.