JOE BIDDLE: Kentucky fighting to make NCAA Tournament - WKRN News 2

JOE BIDDLE: Kentucky fighting to make NCAA Tournament

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When we last saw the Kentucky Wildcats, their eyes were glazed over. Their heads were hanging. Their words were hollow.

All this caused by a 30-point loss to Tennessee in Knoxville, preceded by a 17-point loss to Florida when they lost their best post player in Nerlens Noel whose season ended with a torn ACL.

Obviously Cat Nation was printing up toe tags for a team that in every sense showed no sign of life.

Ah, but UK Coach John Calipari pulled some motivational rabbits out of his hat. Comforted by the Rupp Arena crowd, the Cats managed to hold off a charging Vanderbilt team to avoid a losing hat trick.

Seven-foot freshman Willie Cauley-Stein got only his seventh start of the season, but he led the Wildcats in the 74-70 win. After the Tennessee game Cauley-Stein told Lexington Herald-Leader writer Jerry Tipton that after the Tennessee loss, he did not leave his dorm room for two days. He placed a sheet over the window to darken the room. There's only so many places a 7-footer can hide in Lexington during basketball season.

The freshman had a reason to want to get away. He had four turnovers, two points and two rebounds against the Vols.

Cauley-Stein entered the Vanderbilt game averaging 8.1 points a game. He scored a career-high 20 points on 8 of 10 shooting from the field. He grabbed seven boards and blocked three shots, two of them in crunch time with the game still in doubt.

Kentucky players were targets on social media after the loss to Tennessee. Now they are heroes if only for one game as ESPN comes into town Saturday for Game Day against Missouri, a dangerous team to play.

Kentucky is not the team it has been. The team that won a national championship last season could bury these Cats. They don't have an Anthony Davis. I'm not sure they have a first-round NBA draft pick on the roster.

It will be interesting to see how many players leave after only one year. They all could use another season of college basketball, to mature as people and players.

Since there is no leadership from upperclassmen, it has fallen on Calipari's shoulders to pick them up.

He started right after the Tennessee loss, saying to reporters he had a couple of players who were un-coachable on the team. No names. He later softened his stance, but the message was heard loud and clear.

Calipari broke the tension that was hanging in the air during a walk-through practice the night before the Vanderbilt game.

They played dodgeball. Cauley-Stein said it was "something else to get your mind off it.''

This could be a Kentucky team to win a national championship one season and fail to make the NCAA Tournament the next. It has only happened seven times, once when Kentucky won the 1978 tournament and failed to qualify the following year.

They are now 18-8, but winless in three games against top 25 teams and 0-1 against those ranked from 26 to 50.

The losses to Florida and Tennessee not only knocked Kentucky out of its No. 25 position in the AP poll, they were nowhere to be found this week in others receiving votes.

Their RPI slipped to 46. When is the last time MTSU (27) and Belmont (30) had better RPI rankings than Kentucky?

So Calipari Cats have to grow up in a hurry if they are to save face this season.

It is likely the only way for them to reach the NCAA Tournament is to win the SEC Tournament and they have to hustle to become one of the top four seeds and gain a double bye in the 14-team tournament.

Anyone for a hot game of Red Rover?

Contact wkrn.com Sports Columnist Joe Biddle at joebiddle11@gmail.com.

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