Now that the regular season for the Kentucky Wildcats basketball team is over, we can look forward to postseason play, right? John Calipari’s teams have a reputation for overperforming in the tournaments and being a good tournament team historically, but is that the case this year? John Clay tells us that Cal may have that reputation, but as a whole, history is not on the side of the Wildcats.
History tells us — yes, even the great history of Kentucky basketball — that it is easier said than done.
To be sure, Calipari’s 2010-11 team lost six conference games and found a way to make it all the way to the Final Four. That team was starting to play its best basketball in late February and early March, however. It won five of its last six regular-season games. The lone defeat was a one-point overtime loss at Arkansas.
It bounced back to beat Florida and Vandy at Rupp and Tennessee in Knoxville. It swept through the conference tournament, beating regular-season champ Florida in the finals. It then beat No. 1-ranked Ohio State and North Carolina to win the East Regional before a one-point loss to UConn in the national semifinal.
Kentucky’s teams that have tried to catch fire come tournament time have mainly fizzled.
Tubby Smith’s final Kentucky team, 2006-07, lost five of its last seven games in the regular season. It was bounced from the SEC Tournament by Mississippi State in the semifinals before losing to Kansas in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Matthew Mitchell has done a great job of returning the UK Hoops squad to national prominence, but that elusive SEC Tournament championship remains at bay. The Wildcats finished just one point shy of the championship yesterday in a 71-70 loss to the Lady Vols.
Kentucky (24-8) has become a consistent championship contender in the SEC, but it still hasn’t won the tournament since 1982.
“I don’t know that anything was missing today other than they came up one point better than us,” Mitchell said when asked what it would take to get the Wildcats over the hump.
“I can’t tell you how much respect I have for this tournament. It’s real special to all of us at Kentucky. Our players wanted to win it bad. I don’t know what was missing. Didn’t look like a lot. We just came up one point short today.”
DeNesha Stallworth, who led the Wildcats with 21 points, said the loss would motivate the team in the NCAA tournament.
“Definitely it’s a motivation,” Stallworth said. “Like coach said, it was a great day for us to come together. Regardless of what happened on the court, we stuck together. That’s just the most important thing.
Remember way back in November when the State Farms Champions Classic was thought to be a preview of the Final Four? Well, things have not gone as planned and even though the AP voters are infatuated with Kansas, those dream teams have struggled this year. It’s good for college basketball as it has been so unpredictable, but not that fun for fans of Kentucky and Michigan State.
Back on Nov. 12 of last year inside Chicago’s United Center, then No. 2 Michigan State outlasted then No. 1 Kentucky 78-74, prompting the following quote from losing coach John Calipari:
“You got guys crying in [the UK locker room], which is a good thing. I want it to hurt like that. If you don’t do this together, you won’t win. You’ll never be a special team.”
It’s safe to say that no one cheering for either the Spartans or Cal’s Comatose Cats feels very special right now. When the new Associated Press poll is released today, both MSU and Big Blue should be outside the Top 25 for the first time all year, given their road losses this past weekend at unranked Ohio State and top-ranked Florida, respectively.
But as schools such as Iowa State, Oregon and Tennessee appear to be surging after lackluster Januarys, what are we to make of the four schools who gathered in the United Center 118 days ago for the State Farm Champions Classic — Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan State? How do four traditional powerhouses begin the season ranked in the top five but now find only Duke with less than eight losses?
Is there a common thread? A dangerous trend to avoid? Just one of those years?
Or is this the foreseeable future of college basketball, one filled with more surprises than sure things?