A dump truck full of Dramamine couldn’t help Kentucky basketball fans stomach what the Roller Coaster Cats have forced them to stomach this basketball season. The queasiness the Big Blue Nation feels in its collective gut following what happened in Athens, Georgia, Thursday night isn’t likely to go away soon.
In fact, it could become more acute on the evening of March 17. That’s Selection Sunday, y’all, and when it comes to this year’s Big Dance, it’s looking more and more as though Kentucky will be a wallflower, sitting off to the side – the one with egg on its face.
Barring an unlikely win over Florida on Senior Day, or a Southeastern Conference Tournament championship, UK probably will take its place among the ranks of national champions who never got a chance to actually defend their crowns because they weren’t invited to the NCAA tourney.
It’s happened to Louisville, to North Carolina – heck, it even happened to the Wildcats once before, but that was back before the field was expanded to 64 teams. The 1978 Cats won the title, and then, minus Rick Robey, Mike Phillips, James Lee and Jack Givens, didn’t win enough games to merit a bid in ’79.
Nobody saw these footnotes coming back when John Calipari said goodbye to the principals who slipped on championship rings after last season. He was ready to re-load, with the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class.
Some foolishly predicted a second national title, but there were plenty of typists out there (ahem) who reasonably believed the Wildcats could get to the round of 16, or even beyond, with a little luck.
None of us foresaw the inconsistency that has plagued this team, to a man.
Archie Goodwin led the Cats with 20 points in the 72-62 loss at Georgia, but his propensity for bad shots and offensive fouls have been maddening all season long.
His running mate at guard, Ryan Harrow (a Marietta, Georgia, native), buried his head in his hands and looked as though he was fighting back tears after fouling out with 2:57 left to play. Harrow was the heir-apparent at point guard, the next Calipari-built floor general who would take his turn with the reins and then head for NBA riches. But he hasn’t been up to the job.
Harrow’s season has personified the Wildcats’ up-and-down run this year. He left the team briefly in November, returned and showed some productivity and then slumped so badly he was benched in favor of a walk-on. Harrow asked for his starting job back and performed well for a time, but then flattened out again as his team has been fighting for its life.
Alex Poythress looked like the best front-line player on this night in Athens but, once again, didn’t play that way. The guy who scored 20 or more points in four straight games in November, settled for four points, making just one of three field goal tries against the Bulldogs. Oh yes – he fouled out in just 19 minutes.
Kyle Wiltjer, he of the 26-point outburst at Mississippi that briefly made him the talk of the Southeastern Conference, has averaged just 8.4 points since, as opposing defenders have refused to give him a sliver of daylight to find any room to shoot.
Same problem for Julius Mays, who averaged 14 per game in February (including 24 in what could have been a season-cresting win over Missouri). The fifth-year senior is 1-of-12 from the field in March (three points at Arkansas, zilch at Georgia).
The roller coaster ride took a huge downturn in Gainesville, Florida, the night Nerlens Noel crashed to the floor, his college career likely over. And it kept right on diving through that embarrassing loss at Tennessee.
But there were signs of life, with three straight wins at home and a more vigorous output by Willie Cauley-Stein, who’s actually scored in double figures in seven of the past nine games.
He couldn’t come up larger-than-life when the Wildcats needed it against Georgia. That’s what it would have taken to help overcome 37 percent shooting (6-of-26 from beyond the arc).
And minus Noel, the Cats had to play Georgia straight-up defensively. The quicker, more motivated Dawgs constantly beat Kentucky to the spot, forcing 26 fouls (to just 16 for Georgia) and sinking 27-of-34 free throws (UK was a paltry 10-of-18).
So with the season on the line, the Wildcats wilted, putting themselves in the unenviable position of needing a victory over the SEC’s best team, one that hammered Kentucky by 17 points less than a month ago.
It will take an absolute reversal of this ride for the Cats to make that happen.
(Dick Gabriel is in his 24th 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.)