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Young Wildcats take 'two steps back' with homecourt loss to Arkansas

It’s an age-old basketball axiom, probably my least favorite ever: “By this time of year, they’re not freshmen anymore. They’re sophomores.”

Talking heads say it. Coaches say it. Fans say it, too.

I say, baloney. It’s right up there with, “Pressing teams don’t like to be pressed.” (Hello – what do you think they see in practice every day?)

And, “Hey – this team could go 40-0!”

Not sure how many people actually bought into that one before the UK season began, but following Thursday’s loss to Arkansas, the Wildcats are looking at the excruciatingly real possibility of a 10-loss season.

Ten losses. The measure by which so many deemed Tubby Smith a failure.

And yet, unless the Wildcats upset Florida in Gainesville, win the Southeastern Conference tournament or win the NCAA championship, they’ll finish with double digits in the loss column. Falling to the Razorbacks ensured it.

The last-second, overtime victory over LSU was presented as a potential corner-turning moment. Will to win had come through for this young team, which learned a great lesson about perseverance. And at about the five-minute mark of the Arkansas game, it looked as though they had put their newly-gained knowledge to good use.

The Hogs had eased off to a 10-point lead at the midway point of the first half; they took a 37-30 advantage to the locker room and then expanded it again in the second half. But the Wildcats cranked up the defensive pressure and ripped off a 14-2 run, taking a 57-52 lead of their own. The game was right there for them – all they had to do was seize it.

But it slipped through their inexperienced fingers, thanks to an avalanche of missed free throws. The team that was so deadly against Mississippi and LSU suddenly became The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight at the line, propping the door wide open for the Razorbacks. They barged through it and stole a win by burying all 16 of their free throws, while the Cats missed 10 of 22.

A team full of sophomores and juniors wouldn’t let that happen. A team that knows what’s what would realize that at this crucial juncture of the season, you must protect your home court. Any loss in your own back yard, with tournament selection committee members scrutinizing every game, can be devastating at this time of year.

“We took two steps back today,” John Calipari accurately said, although he stopped short of saying he’s running out of time, as well as buttons to push with this team. “We're still good,” he said. “Just like anybody else, you have a bad game and now you move on from it.”

But this game didn’t represent an island of mistakes in a sea of execution. The Wildcats are a Julius Randle putback away from three consecutive homecourt losses in February. Sure, they might have played their best basketball of the season in the first 34 minutes of the Florida game. But they followed that up by letting the Bayou Bengals push them around for 40 minutes, plus overtime. And now, Arkansas does the same thing, only the Hogs were perfect from the free throw line as the Wildcats kept laying bricks.

“The difference with the Florida game,” Calipari said, “was there was so much to be encouraged about, we could move on. This one is almost like you're waiting, what's going to happen in this next game? Hopefully they understand and take stock.”

He’d have every right to expect that with an older team. But a team that leans so heavily on freshmen, perhaps more than any team ever has in Division I college basketball, is learning new lessons every night out.

Yes, they’ve played a lot of games already. They’ve practiced more than they ever have in their lives. But it’s all still a first.

They’re coming up on their first SEC Tournament, where they’ll try to win three games in three grueling days (sure, they’ve done it in AAU ball – this is different). It’s their first time worrying about where they’ll be seeded in the post-season. And their first date with March Madness is coming at them in a rush.

All that progress they made with a tough road victory in Oxford, and the homecourt comeback against LSU? They gave it all back Thursday night with the loss to Arkansas. And then some.
Young teams do things like that. And the time for them to grow up is disappearing quickly.

(Dick Gabriel is in his 25th season with the UK TV and Radio Networks, and can be heard on the Big Blue Insider Monday through Friday from 6-8 p.m. ET on 630 WLAP-AM and wlap.com.)


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