No NCAA at-large bid for Kentucky, young defending champs can't overcome inconsistent play
LEXINGTON, Ky. – Kentucky's inconsistent play this year has left the Wildcats without a chance to defend their national championship.
There was no at-large NCAA tournament bid for the young Kentucky squad that could not overcome injuries, sporadic guard play and a lack of leadership.
A 16-point loss in Friday's game in the Southeastern Conference tournament against Vanderbilt a few miles from the Commodores' Nashville campus sealed the fate of the Wildcats, who were left out of the 68-team field.
Kentucky did get a No. 1 seed in the National Invitation Tournament.
"I'm really disappointed we didn't make the NCAA tournament, but we are going to use this time to make us better," Wildcats coach John Calipari said Sunday night.
"We had our chances, but I'm not going to stop. It's a great lesson for the future of our program and a humbling experience for me as a coach."
The Wildcats will open on the road at Robert Morris on Tuesday in the 32-team NIT field.
Kentucky athletic department spokesman DeWayne Peevy said the school is not hosting a first-round game because it did not bid on one because of conflicts at Rupp Arena.
"We did not place a bid to host the first round of the NIT due to limited staff availability to properly host a game at Memorial Coliseum," Peevy said in a statement.
"Because the University of Kentucky is hosting the NCAA second- and third-round games at Rupp Arena on March 21 and 23, the facility was not available for a first-round NIT game. We placed a bid to host both the second round and quarterfinal games at Rupp Arena if we advance."
While the NIT gives Kentucky a chance to extend its season, it's a small consolation for a program that began the season No. 3 and with Final Four aspirations.
The Wildcats, the No. 2 seed in the SEC tournament, also have to be feeling the sting of letting an NCAA berth slip away with a 64-48 loss to 10th-seeded Vanderbilt in Nashville.
Kentucky (21-11) becomes the 20th national champion to miss the tournament the following season, according to STATS.
Despite the belief that they can beat anybody when playing as a team, Kentucky players were left pondering a slew of what-ifs created by their failure to execute consistently.
The SEC quarterfinal loss to Vanderbilt showed Kentucky's deficiencies.
In a game Calipari said was a must-win needed to solidify an at-large bid, the coach watched his Wildcats "lay an egg."
Kentucky managed just 48 points against the Commodores, a team it swept during the regular season and had scored 74 against just a few weeks ago.
Gone was the momentum from the Wildcats' signature win over Florida on March 9, as well as their case for returning to the tournament they dominated a year ago. Then again, inconsistency has been a common theme for a young team.
Kentucky has four heralded freshmen on its roster, but no returning starter to lead the way such as last year's squad benefited from — rookies and consensus All-Americans Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist had veterans such as Darius Miller, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb as mentors.
"Last year's team was a little unique in that, they had some vocal guys right away that would talk and scream and yell and get the other guys to talk," Calipari said of the team's communication earlier this season.
"We had to get them to where they talked and they took great pride in who they were and what they were about as a team. We're trying to get us to that point but it's taking time."
Star freshman center Nerlens Noel, leading a recruiting class including 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein, Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress, often set the tone for Kentucky with energy and standout shot-blocking skills.
He was leading the nation with 106 rejections before suffering a season-ending knee injury on Feb. 12 that shifted the Wildcats' fortunes.
After he was sidelined, the Wildcats were a .500 team.
Kentucky struggled even with the 6-foot-10 Noel in the lineup. The Wildcats started this season ranked No. 3 behind Indiana and Louisville, but fell out of the Top 25 after going 4-3 to start the season.
They climbed back into the rankings at No. 25 on Feb. 11 before Noel tore his ACL in a loss at Florida the next night. Kentucky went 4-4 without him, including a 30-point drubbing at Tennessee and three other double-digit losses away from Rupp Arena.
Ultimately, those losses outweighed the Wildcats' quality wins over Florida and Missouri and finishing second behind the Gators during the regular season to clinch the No. 2 seed in the SEC tournament.
But uneven guard play, the frontcourt's failure to support Cauley-Stein after he took over for Noel and a season-long battle trying to build chemistry doomed Kentucky's hopes of returning to the NCAA tournament.
The last two games were telling for the Wildcats' season-long issues in the backcourt. After combining for 29 points in the win over Florida, Harrow and Goodwin had just 16 points on 7 of 25 shooting against Vanderbilt.
Cauley-Stein had nine rebounds against the Commodores but just seven points and four fouls, while Poythress tallied six points and four rebounds. Against the Gators, they teamed up for 15 points and 20 rebounds.
"I mean, it's re-occurring," Cauley-Stein said of the team's up-and-down performances after the Vanderbilt loss.
"Happens every two games. It's like that."
The Wildcats won't get the opportunity to repeat that pattern in the NCAA tournament.